Archive for April 17th, 2009


3a) Why the Yankees Finished Second

Inexplicably, all of the postmortems I’ve come across have ignored the two most important reasons the Yankees came up short in 1993. Am I alone in seeing the obvious, that the factors most responsible for the Yankees’ second-place finish were the questionable priorities of the people who make our drug rules and the embarrassing reluctance of my fellow fans to get their street clothes dirty?

To take the latter issue first: how often in this past season could it be said of Yankee fans that they were truly into the game? Can we count how many times they sat and watched while a Yankee made a final out, or failed to snatch a ball from the grasp of an opposing outfielder and bring it into the seats when New York needed a dinger? (I’m sorry, but over the course of eighty-one home games, one fan taking the field to keep an inning alive, and one fan deftly lengthening the reach of a warning track fly ball, hardly qualifies as the model of hustle you’d want to see Little League fans emulating.)

Unfortunately, given the contemptible chicken-heartedness of the current crop of so-called ”Yankee supporters” from The Bronx, there are no quick remedies for this grievous situation—none that I can see, anyway. A solution will likely have to wait until Mr. Steinbrenner relocates the team to New Jersey where it will attract fans of proven mettle. (A demonstrably fearless people, New Jerseyans have astonished everyone with their remarkable ability to survive in a cruel and hostile environment the rest of us had written off as unfit for habitation. Although their faculties have been severely compromised they still manage to sort of function. Folks like these won’t be intimidated by the prospect of security personnel bouncing their heads around.)

The other problem, however, could be disposed of as quickly as next season if we can get our leaders to re-think their position, bend a little, and allow Steve Howe to do cocaine again. I mean Howe performing at his best was crucial to a Yankee success this year and, his ERA up something like four runs since he quit using, you don’t have to be a Starfleet Academy graduate to recognize that letting him keep his blow was the way to maintain his effectiveness.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not unmindful of the potential risk involved in granting Howe such a dispensation. There is, indeed, an argument to be made against it. Permitting him to go back on coke could very well subject his friends to yet more rounds of earnest, inane and exasperatingly discursive all-night monologues, and force his lovers to endure more three-hour bouts of limp and grossly sweaty sex with never a climax. But think about it. Isn’t winning a pennant worth the price, especially when you consider that Howe would frequently demonstrate an amazingly generous spirit and an exceptional capacity for affection?

Look. We’re all going to get very sick, really seriously ill, and then we’re going to die. And life, I’m sure you’ll agree, is no bowl of Jack Daniels even before this happens. When a chance to become forgetful of our circumstances and to feel superior to our fate presents itself, don’t we owe it to ourselves to take full advantage of it? And to these ends, how many things, besides winning a Superbowl, are equal to winning a pennant? Blowing the head off a rabbit at fifty yards? Meeting Chuck Norris? (Make your own list, but I’ll bet it’s just as short.) No, winning a pennant is something very special.

I’m reasonably sure that I haven’t had one of those nasty flashbacks since 1975. So why am I the only one who remembers the exchange between Phil Rizzuto and Bobby Murcer that took place during a lightning storm delay in Milwaukee a few years ago and which, the weird static and mesmerizing visual interference notwithstanding, illuminated far better than I ever could, the size of the reward a pennant offers.

”Accomplishing a league championship,” Rizzuto said, ”is to solve a fundamental existential dilemma. Have you ever thought, Murcer, about the euphoria that one observes on such occasions, when big, fiercely perspiring, tobacco spitting and flatulent men pile upon one another in the infield, and with utter indifference to the incredible effluvium that permeates their lungs? Is the matrix of this phenomenon not the sensation, albeit fleeting, of having triumphed over the ephemerality and vileness of the body, of having won a victory over mortality itself?”

”Scooter, I couldn’t agree with you more.” Murcer responded. ”And this elation that we witness is hardly limited to the actual participants, but is, in fact, shared by those who follow them; people whose lives— bereft of heroic possibilities—oblige them to identify with the transcendent achievements of others, and whose joy can actually turn night into day when, in the immediate aftermath of victory, they will sometimes set their stores and automobiles on fire. I would go so far as to say that man invented competitive athletics, and the sportsplex with the skyboxes, that he might create for himself an opportunity to win and, in the winning, experience his apotheosis.”

What could I add to that to make my point? When you consider what we gave up to protect his friends and intimates from a little self-indulgence and hyper-activity, it becomes quite clear that a reassessment of the Howe issue is very much in order. I don’t mean to minimize the gravity of the concerns or to appear insensitive, but listen: I don’t have any friends or intimates. How many might he have? Three? Five! In a year when we could certainly have used a championship, a year of biblical floods, a terrorist bombing in New York City and Billy Ray Cyrus (and in which, let me tell you, I had more than my share of personal and emotional problems), our chance to get one was sacrificed to the convenience of what can’t amount to more than a handful of people.

Are we going to repeat this mistake next year when who knows what fresh horrors nature, the Third World and the music industry have in store for us, and when many of us are also due for a checkup?


The Emergence of Jimmy Lyons

From Jazz & Pop Magazine, 1970

Since 1960, when he began working with Cecil Taylor, alto saxophonist Jimmy Lyons has been developing from a somewhat diffident musician into one of the more potent voices in the New Music. In recent recordings and appearances with Taylor, Jimmy has been playing with a glowing assertiveness and an often stunning beauty.

Jimmy Lyons

Jimmy Lyons

This past spring, Jimmy’s first record under his leadership, Other Afternoons on the French BYG label, was released and it should make anyone who can get hold of it take serious notice – not only of his increasing mastery of the alto saxophone, but also of his newly revealed and exceptional talent as a composer. The album is highly charged and demonstrates Jimmy’s capacity to play and write with a startling rhythmic energy, a strong sense of melody, and a near-to-excruciating lyricism. He’s accompanied on the record by three first-rate musicians, trumpeter Lester Bowie, who makes fierce and electrifying music, and two colleagues from Taylor’s unit, Alan Silva, a fine bassist and brilliant cellist, and Andrew Cyrille, who I think sometimes might be the best drummer on the planet.

Born in Jersey City, December 1, 1933, Jimmy began playing alto when he was in high school. “At the time, and mostly from records, I was into Ernie Henry. I’d heard Bird first, but when I heard Ernie Henry I dug him more. Afterwards I heard Bird again and could see how he offered more. Then I started listening to people like Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, James Moody…. What really got me to start was a chick who lived next door. She had a baby grand and used to have people coming over and jamming all the time – Elmo Hope, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and a lot of local players. I’d been playing for about six months then, mostly by myself, tunes like ‘Indiana’ – I had no teacher, but I had a very good ear – and she heard me and one day she said, ‘Hey, you’re sounding good, why don’t you come over?’ I did, and Monk was there. We played for about a half hour. He told me he wanted me to play a certain figure – sevenths – so I thought, sevenths? I didn’t know what he was talking about. I could hear it, but I’d never studied or learned. Monk said I was talented, but that I had to get down and take care of business; had to learn about music and do a lot of woodshedding. It was actually a beautiful experience. Later I played with Elmo Hope. We had a piano too at that time, and he used to practice on it afternoons when my mother was out working. We used to play and put things together, but I still hadn’t had any formal training.

“In 1959 I met a cat named Rudy Rutherford. He wasn’t as modern as some of the cats I was playing with, but he said, ‘C’mon, I’ll teach you how to play the saxophone.’ I needed to learn and he showed me a few things. He was very helpful.

“A year later I met Cecil. I was playing with a bass player at a club called Raphael’s on Bleecker Street. Cecil worked opposite us on weekends. He had Archie Shepp and Dennis Charles with him, and the whole thing really knocked me out. Up until then I was playing mostly as a hobby, working at the Post Office, with just occasional gigs here and there. But hearing Cecil made me want to get into music full-time. Later a mutual friend said Cecil was looking for another horn, so I went down – he was living on Dey Street then – and we started rehearsing.”

With Cecil, Jimmy was obliged to take a leap into a whole new methodology. “I had to reorganize my whole approach to music and break a lot of habits. That’s not very easy to do. I’d spent about a year trying to get myself together scale-wise and key-wise and tune-wise. Then, all of a sudden, this other thing came up. It took me a little while to get myself together in Cecil’s music, to stop thinking chord-wise and to think about linking idea to idea. Like on the Into the Hot album [Impulse], I didn’t feel I was playing as well as I should be.”

If Jimmy’s work on Into the Hot was uncertain and tentative (and still more imitative of Charlie Parker than an extension of the Parker tradition into the New Music), it gradually, as I’ve said, assumed authority and individuation. Witness the progression of his playing on Taylor’s four succeeding albums: Live at the Cafe Montmartre (Fantasy), Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come (Fontana), Unit Structures (Blue Note) and Conquistador (Blue Note).

In my conversation with Jimmy I posed a number of questions at random. His comments on various aspects of his approach and aesthetic, as well as the New Music and the current scene in general, follow.

His Influences: “Well, of course there was Bird and there is Cecil. Also, I really dug Sonny Rollins a lot – and Jackie McLean. The man who wrote the liner notes for the BYG album said I’d been influenced by Ornette, but I haven’t really. I like Ornette, and I must say it’s always good to hear him. But if Ornette and I sound alike in any way it’s because of the mutual influence we share of Bird. As for Bird, I think he was what every musician should be. He’s an inspiration for every musician to do his own thing instead of being imitative. That’s the realization I came to. I mean the major thing to learn from Bird was not to play like him, but to play yourself.”

His Procedure: “Music has come to me to be an abstract thing. I don’t try to imitate sounds like birds, or give a direct symbol of the sky or anything like that. I try to just let the music come out of myself without giving any special meaning in front. I might think about what it might symbolize after I play it, but not before. It’s more innate with me than deliberate.”

The New Music and Bebop: “Bebop was very romantic in a sense. It talked about heroic actions – things to do politically as well as musically, rather than doing it now. Of course Bird got to some things, and a lot of the cats who are playing today aren’t as modern as he was. When I say ‘modern,’ I mean using techniques that are indigenous to the modern school, like wide skips or things of that nature. But basically bebop was about the idea of doing what had to be done, rather than actually doing it. Now we’re doing it.”

The Meaning of Freedom: “When we talk about ‘free jazz’ it doesn’t mean that you play whatever pops into your head. It just means greater freedom of choice, and not being tied to some previous cat or things like chord structures.”

The Jazz Continuum: “To move to the next step you have to have a knowledge of tradition – of the tradition of the black aesthetic – to have heard all of the things of the past and to truly have been moved by them. I don’t mean just checking them out, but having been really moved by them.”

Rock: “Rock is dealing with a lot of electricity. You hear a full orchestra playing, then a rock group with four pieces comes along and blows them all away because of all that electricity. But I spent a year in North Carolina and heard a lot of those blues singers and players, and my father was a good dancer who had a good collection of blues records. I feel I’ve absorbed what most of rock is about, and the point now is to go on. I really want to push forward rather than dwell on what’s gone before.”

“Classical” Electronic Music: “Much of it strikes me as bland. Of course, some of it would take a whole lot of fantastic blowing to get. But for me it lacks the human quality. When you hear a John Coltrane record, for example, you not only hear it, you visualize it too. I think the music of the black avant-garde is at least on the level of Stockhausen. But the black avant-garde doesn’t have the kind of scene and patronage that he has. Those cats are able to work and write at their leisure.”

Finding a Place to Play: “It’s obvious that clubs are not the right atmosphere. Guys go to a club to hit on some chick and the music comes along and pulls the whole thing apart. I prefer to play in schools or concert halls because I think the intensity of the music demands the full attention.”

Finding an Audience: “An audience will have to come through education. Black avant-garde music has to be inculcated into the ghetto, and schooling may accomplish that. I mean if you go to a white slum neighborhood where people live in utter poverty and you play them a record by Chopin, they’ll say, wow, that’s really something. They may not really like it, they may be being hypocritical, but they’ll have a certain respect for it because they’ve been educated that way. This isn’t true of black slum neighborhoods. There’s no real respect for jazz. They haven’t been taught in the schools that they should respect it. If it’s taught in the schools they may not like it at first, but they will respect it and support it, and eventually they’ll get to it.”

I asked Jimmy about his plans for the future. “Of all the groups out there playing, I think I’m most satisfied playing with Cecil. Of course I’d also like to have my own context, to set up certain things and build up my own milieu. Like Coltrane. He’s working out of his own thing, and he built it and built it and built it until it was overwhelming. In the last year and a half I’ve been doing a lot of composing – writing things down and putting them aside and developing them when I have the time. Often ideas pop up while I’m playing and I write them down later. I’m also learning things from composing that are changing my playing. Writing and composing can be two very different things, of course. I’ve met a lot of cats who compose some out-of-sight shit, but they can’t play it at all. I want to be able to do both well. What I’d really like would be, say, to write for three months, then woodshed on it for six months, then play it in public for the next three months. Then I’d want to start fresh all over again with new material and ideas. Economics won’t permit that, of course. But I want as best I can to keep moving from one area and context to another, to really get into one thing, get out of it, then get into another thing.

“I want to always be moving. Moving forward.”

Books by Robert Levin

When Pacino’s Hot, I’m Hot
The Drill Press LLC

Against Mental Health: Short Stories


“Distinguished quality…profound emotion.” —Dr. Karunesh Kumar Agrawal

“Some real gold in here.”—B.D. Charles


Music & Politics
by John Sinclair and Robert Levin
World Publishing

“Robert Levin’s articles…make up the second half of Music and Politics, and they’re something else again. He’s a quietly briliant writer (not flashy but subtly dazzling) who knows jazz extremely well and who knows how to let us know what he knows. His piece on Sunny Murray says more about the birth of the New Jazz than most writers could say in a volume; the Anthony Braxton interview is one of the freshest, most reassuring articles on the future of music (of the arts in general) that I’ve read; his ‘found critique’ of ‘Space’ by the MJQ, which contrasts Murray’s thoughts on music at the White House with President Nixon’s introduction of the MJQ in that very place, is brilliant; his piece on the unfortunate evolution of Willis Jackson…is a minor masterpiece; and he’s lucid and painful and thoroughly correct when he writes that ‘What is meant by ‘every man has his price’ is that every man has his uncertainty about the validity and sanity of his perception of the truth. To ‘sell out’ is to capitulate to that uncertainty.'”
—Colman Andrews, Creem

Giants of Black Music
Edited by Pauline Rivelli and Robert Levin, with a foreword by Nat Hentoff
Da Capo Press