Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Bellson Blues


A fella like me bears more labels than DVDs from the blowout bin at Blockbuster, but one to which I have always answered proudly is “jazz fan”. Sure, I listen to everything—rock and rap, classical and pop, blues, folk, country and indigenous musics from more countries than hold portions of the US national debt—and have published hundreds of stories about the stuff, but at the end of the day it is jazz, “America’s classical music”, that remains the dominant influence on my life and work.


Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni, aka Louie Bellson (1924-2009) may be best-remembered a) for his groundbreaking interracial marriage to singer Pearl Bailey—Wikipedia notes their having the second-highest total of appearances at the White House—and b) for conceptualizing the double bass drum set up at age 15, setting the stage for men like Keith Moon and Neil Peart. He took it around the world, onto over 200 albums and into concerts and colleges with almost every jazz hall-of-famer to work in his lifetime. He could also handle four drum sticks like a vibraphonist uses his mallets. But for me, he was maybe the most important musician ever.


Looking back, it feels somewhat remarkable that my active relationship to jazz (not counting tag-along trips to the local festivals) only goes back 15 years. I remember the exact day my obsession began: July 27, 1994. Louie Bellson was the third guest on a new show being hosted by Conan O’Brien, who will become the fifth host of The Tonight Show later this year. Bellson, who followed Michael Moore and the late Isaac Hayes, was there promoting Black, Brown and Beige, his recent CD of music dating from his 1950s run with Duke Ellington, whom I had never heard of.. After watching his performance of “Skin Deep” (now buried forever in NBC’s archives), I was hooked.


In the hoary old days predating e-commerce, it took two days of calls to realize that no, I couldn’t just go to the mall and buy it, and two more days to find a store that had any idea what it was or how to find it. A week or two later found me in Avondale, at a Turtles Music inside the shopping complex on St. Johns Avenue, since defunct, looking through the jazz section of a CD store for the first time in my life.


The Bellson disc itself was never a particular favorite; his sound was not well-served by early-stage full-digital recording. Most old-school jazz CDs are digitized from their original analog masters, and while that sometimes wreaks havoc in other areas, most often the bass, the drums generally sound pretty sweet in stereo. However, all music was recorded in mono for the first half of the 20th century, creating a total crapshoot in terms of the arrangement of the instruments around the single microphone, ambient noise and, of course, the generally crappy upkeep of the resulting masters. I had no idea what any of that meant back then, but another ancillary joy of being a jazz fan is that you learn a lot of miscellaneous information along the way.


The bottom line is that Bellson never registered the broader cultural impact of contemporaries such as Elvin Jones, Mel Lewis, Shelly Manne and Max Roach, but he was crucial in very specific ways. As a college freshman I bought a cheap old no-name snare drum to practice rudiments during idle moments, because there was just so much free time at the University of Florida, right? I went to the lovely Alachua public library in search of drum instruction videos, and the only one they had was a Louie Bellson video from 1981! The word “paradiddle” induces ironic laughter to this day.


The liner notes to Black, Brown and Beige mentioned two other famous big-band drummers named Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich; to my pleasant surprise the store had their epic 1955 record Krupa and Rich, newly reissued on CD. I must have bought and re-bought the thing ten times since, because it’s the auditory equivalent of Behold a Pale Horse—once you lend it out, it’s gone forever. That album introduced names like Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Ben Webster and, most crucially, Dizzy Gillespie. It became my personal Rosetta Stone, and Louie Bellson set that in motion.


Louie Bellson died shortly before what would have been his 85th birthday, a week after the loss of another legend, angel-voiced singer Blossom Dearie (1926-2009). They were both quite old, and their exits from this stage of life was hardly unexpected (it is axiomatic that when working jazz musicians stop taking bookings, death is not far off), but still it makes this fan feel suddenly much older himself. RIP

February 17, 2009

The Battle for Florida: Corrine versus Kendrick?


A message received just moments ago from within the local Young Democrats suggests a dramatic new development in the race to succeed Florida’s retiring junior senator, Mel Martinez. Already Rep. Kendrick Meek has led the way to capturing the Democratic nomination, but apparently he’s about to face some serious competition in the form of fellow Rep. Corrine Brown, who has held her spot in Congress since 1992 and in fact developed as politician alongside Kendrick’s mother, former Rep. Carrie Meek.

Brown brings considerable DC experience, while Meek can claim to have played a crucial role in helping President Obama win Florida, and the nation, in 2008. He has already appeared with Obama in Fort Myers, where the latter was selling his economic “stimulus” package (in the company of none other than Governor Charlie Crist, whose diminished profile among state Republicans has been balanced by the bipartisan support offered by the new administration) and is reportedly soon to appear in Jacksonville with former president Bill Clinton. It will be interesting to see if that does happen, given Brown’s longtime association with the Clintons. She and Bill both took office in 2003, and the Clinton-era budget appropriations allowed Brown to develop her lead slogan, “Corrine Delivers!”

Delivery is what it’s all about in that business, and while Meek has earned a positive record during his run in Congress, he will have a hard time convincing Democratic power-brokers (especially up here, in the northern part of the state) that he can bring home more money during these delicate financial times than Brown. But then again, a lot of Dems have never liked Brown–she talks too much like the southern black woman she is, and nothing raises the ire of the  college-crowd liberals like the southern dialiect–unless it’s being cynically appropriated by Obama, that is.

This primary could demonstrate whether there is any lingering beef between the Obamas and Clintons. If Meek is the president’s man, the Clintons could show off their sustained stroke by backing Corrine against him. If Clinton fails to back Corrine’s US Senate run explicitly, and makes that gig with Meek, then she will be just the latest woman to be used up and thrown away by Bill Clinton. But, as always, one can grasp the internal logic of such a decision.

Money Jungle Classic: “Exit the Mermaid”


[In light of this week’s national elections in Israel, I thought it prudent to post an old column written as preview of the last round of national elections in 2006. Most of what was written then could stand unedited in regard to what’s going on now, except that the Labor Party’s power is entirely restricted to playing a junior role in a Livni coalition gov’t, and a much smaller role under Netanyahu.]

Exit the Mermaid

A rough guide to the 2006 Israeli elections.


The only good to have possibly come of the tragedy that befell Ariel Sharon in January 2006 is that his departure from the scene forces others to step up their game in time for the rapid activity that is likely to occur in the region over the period between now and, say, 2012. One of these persons is Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who has already been described as “Israel’s Hillary.” That’s the highest compliment to be paid either lady.


Sharon was a special person, but remember that he was a 77 year-old man, five-seven and 250 pounds, who’d spent 40 years working spots where instant death was always a possibility. We’ll never know if Kadima was in some way a reflection on his own mortality. “The Little Mermaid” personally brought Livni into his breakaway Kadima coalition, and she emerges from his debilitation as the party’s second-leading figure, behind only acting PM Ehud Olmert, a former Jerusalem mayor and skilled fundraiser. All this has major implications for America.


Likud has been split on settlement issues for two years. It’s possible that Sharon’s exit clears the path for a reunited Likud that could win an outright majority, but not likely since the issue is so polarizing. (International meddling in Israeli affairs doesn’t help.) To dismantle Kadima would require senior Likud loyalists to cede key Ministerial positions to folks like Livni and Ohlmert, who bolted from Likud to follow Sharon and were about to pound their old mates in the March election. Polls taken before Sharon’s stroke had his party up on both Labor and Likud, despite the Netanyahu Factor.


Former PM Benjamin Netanyahu is considered almost universally to be a future PM. The fact of his ascent has been simply a technical matter. He possesses many of the attributes people look for in a leader: young, handsome, a clearly-defined political ideal, military experience, and a legacy. His late brother Jonathan is an Israeli war hero, and his father was an intellectual who participated in the founding of the country. Today, “Bibi” stands out as a major figure, one of only a handful of Israeli politicians recognizable to non-Israelis, and the only one currently likely to reclaim the big chair.


When Netanyahu resigned as Finance Minister in Sharon’s cabinet to protest the Gaza pullout in 2005, it set in motion the unraveling of Likud and the new reality of Israeli politics. After Netanyahu resigned, Sharon replaced him with Ohlmert and left the party he’d helped found in the 1960s. Kadima drew Ohlmert and Livni from Likud, with some tacit support from Shimon Peres. Sharon then called for new elections, a right the PM shares with the Israeli Knesset via the No Confidence vote.


Lost in all this is the Labor Party, which has struggled to rebound from the death of party icon Yizhak Rabin in November 1995. Shimon Peres, a twice-former PM who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Yasser Arafat, succeeded Rabin and was promptly defeated in 1996 by Netanyahu, who lost in 1999 to Ehud Barak. Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount on September 28, 2000 helped spark the second intifada, which began the next day. The resulting tumult brought Sharon to power, five years ago, and left Labor scrambling to find itself. It could be said that the US Democratic Party has a similar predicament, except that Labor has shown signs of actually solving the problem. Of course, Labor chief Amir Peretz has no shot at the Prime Ministership this time, but he could emerge as the third or fourth key member of the post-election coalition.


The Sharon situation, in some ways, mirrors Rabin’s assassination, in that both were embattled PMs with Bibi Netanyahu on their trail. Both were suffering from the internal perception of weakness and capitulation to Palestinian terror, even as both were being hailed as peacemakers abroad. One key difference is that Rabin did not die with elections 100 days out and with Iran weeks away from going nuclear.


The main question of March 28 is whether Ohlmert can (or should) hold back the challenge of Netanyahu. Whoever wins must then act quickly to build a coalition that can hold up through the tumult of 2006; expect Livni to play a major role in that. At this point Israel really has four “major” parties: Labor, Likud, the upstart Kadima, and the sum of all the smaller parties in Israeli politics. Any could do benefit from the situation. The strength of Israeli civil life should carry them through the difficult days ahead.

January 7, 2006