American Dream, Chilean Nightmare

Pedro Pablo Barrientos came to the United States in 1990 to make a new start in life. Leaving his native country of Chile in South America and arriving in the U.S. southern state of Florida with little money and a broken marriage behind him, he managed to get a job in landscaping at first, then worked at a few restaurants and eventually ran his own pizza joint — a sure sign that you have made it in the USA.

His most recent job, as a restaurant cook, was one he had held for about a decade. He is retired now, and at age 67, he lives in Deltona, Florida and is still struggling financially. He manages to survive thanks to his social security welfare payments from the U.S. government.

“I came looking for the American dream like everyone else,”
Barrientos reminisces today. “I was not running from anything.”

But something was chasing him just the same: his own sordid past as a military officer and reputed killer. It was a past Barrientos seems to have told few about — not even U.S. immigration officials when he applied for, and received, U.S. citizenship in 2010.

Barrientos’ sordid past finally caught up with him last month when a jury in Florida found him
guilty in a civil lawsuit for the death of a fellow countryman. That countryman was Víctor Jara, the much-loved Chilean singer-songwriter and theater director who was imprisoned, tortured and executed during the Chilean military’s coup of the government of that country on September 11, 1973. That coup led to the ouster, and death, of democratically elected president Salvador Allende of Chile and put the Yankee-supported psychopathic army general Augusto Pinochet in power for the next 17 years.

That day of infamy is still known by the Chilean people as the “first 9-11” terrorist attack — a brutal military takeover of a legitimate government that was sponsored by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Jara was just one of thousands of Chilean citizens at the time who got caught up in a bloody rampage by the Chilean military that still stands as one of the worst acts of political repression in modern times.

Víctor Jara was a popular Chilean figure in those days, and the U.S. poodle press likes to call him “The Bob Dylan of Chile”. But that description is nowhere near accurate. Jara was far more revolutionary in his outlook and in his wide body of artistic work than Dylan ever was. Unlike Dylan, Jara was very much a People’s Poet and a champion of the common working person in his country. Jara went down into the Chilean mines (which, by the way, were dominated by U.S. multinational corporations) together with the Chilean miners. Jara wrote songs about love, about life under extreme poverty in a
población (slum), about people joining together in a common struggle for a more equitable society. No disrespect intended at all to Mr. Zimmerman and his many fans in North America, but Bob Dylan’s musical output and social activism simply pale in comparison with that of Víctor Jara. And that’s why Jara was killed by soldiers of his own country during the U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile in 1973: He was despised by them and by the elite class of Chilean society.

In the recent trial, Barrientos was accused by some of the former soldiers under his command as being the one who pulled the final trigger and executed Víctor Jara in the inner bowels of the Estadio Chile [Chile Stadium], a multipurpose sports and concert complex in downtown Santiago, the capital city of Chile. Barrientos denies that account and says he knew nothing about Jara’s execution during the 1973 coup — in fact, he says, he didn’t even know what Jara looked like. A dubious claim, to be sure, since Víctor Jara was one of the most recognizable public faces in all of Chile at the time.

The lawsuit was brought against Barrientos by the San Francisco, California-based
Center for Justice and Accountability on behalf Víctor Jara’s surviving family members: wife Joan Jara, a British expatriate in Chile, and their two children Manuela and Amanda. The legal victory is a landmark case and sets a solid legal precedent for bringing well-protected killers to justice many years after the crime has been committed.

But who was Barrientos being protected by? The U.S. government, it would seem, though that protection apparently did not come up as an issue in the recent court case against Barrientos. And it would not be the first time: There have been other known cases of Latin American killers hiding out on U.S. soil with help from the American government and never having to face justice for their crimes, of which
Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles are just two.

So, what happens next? The verdict by a Florida court against Barrientos will probably be appealed, and since it is a civil lawsuit and not a criminal one, there is no rush for the U.S. government to extradite Barrientos, a wanted man, back to Chile, where
he was convicted in absentia four years ago in connection with the death of Víctor Jara. But that is exactly what the Obama administration must do, and soon — extradite Barrientos back to Chile once and for all to face the music.

The music of Víctor Jara, that is, which is as socially relevant and timeless today as it was four decades ago. Let the people of Chile decide how Barrientos and other such cowards in the Chilean military must be dealt with. And if an abrupt extradition back to Chile interrupts Sñr. Barrientos’s “American Dream” in a safe, comfortable Florida suburb, then so be it. True justice is a small price to pay for the nightmare that the people of Chile were put through back in 1973 and which they have been suffering all these years.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for a documentary film in progress titled
The Resurrection of Victor Jara, which will cover his life and work, and show just why he is still so beloved in Chile, throughout Latin America and indeed around the world all these years later. His story continues to be told and his songs are still being sung by people anywhere seeking hope and a way forward in bleak and trying times.

Víctor Jara vive!

‘A Love Supreme’ at 50

I have given up long ago on making any kind of easily broken New Year’s resolution to mark the arrival of another year, so for 2016 I decided to do something different that will start me off on the right foot and stay with me through the year ahead: choosing my first musical selection of the year.

That, for me, would be the classic jazz album
A Love Supreme by John Coltrane. I can think of no better way to start a new year than by sitting down and once again giving a close listen to this magnificent recording that has inspired so many people around the world since it was released back in 1965.

But not just the original version of that record — what I’m listening to now as I write these words is
A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters, a new three-CD set that commemorates the 50 years since its release by Coltrane to instant, and lasting, public acclaim. This repackaged edition of A Love Supreme is a true musical treasure for the ears and feast for the soul.

What is it about
A Love Supreme that makes it so warmly embraced by so many people of differing walks of life all over the planet? I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. Of course, there is the very high level of craftsmanship that all four members of Trane’s classic quartet brought to the table: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums and Trane himself on saxophone — all of them playing at the peak of their prowess and communicating intently with each other on literally every note.

Yet chops alone don’t explain it. Then, could it be the sound? Many professional musicians know about a thing call the Universal Tone, that special something that somehow penetrates all barriers and boundaries and hits people right in the heart and unites them in their humanity. Few musicians ever reach that plateau in their lifetime, but Trane’s sound on
A Love Supreme is at that universal level, no doubt. But is that all?

Maybe it’s also the pulse of spirituality that
A Love Supreme resonates, a reflection of that deep inner place that Trane was at when he composed this four-part suite: “Acknowledgement”, “Resolution”, “Pursuance” and “Psalm”. Popular music is not generally known for its spiritual pursuits; monetary profit is usually the more immediate goal. Yet this record was exceptional in showing that something spiritually nourishing could also do well on the popular charts.

Or perhaps it’s something simpler that most people who listen to
A Love Supreme tend to overlook: Coltrane’s direct message to each owner of the record.

The original liner notes on the album’s inner jacket, written by Trane himself, are very honest and open about how he was moved by his relationship with God (or however you want to define that entity) to share
A Love Supreme with the world as a new direction in his musical development. Most liner notes of jazz records back then were written by so-called professional jazz critics, and there often seemed to be a gap between how a critic explained the music to you in a particular album’s liner notes and how you, the listener, received the music and felt about it. Trane, as the artist, bypassed that critique completely and addressed you personally in writing. How often does that ever happen on a major record label?

In the end, it’s not any one of these factors but rather all of them put together, I think, that set
A Love Supreme so far apart, above and ahead of other musical recordings, both in and outside of jazz. And this newly released, three-disc commemorative edition of A Love Supreme shows that the reverence in which people have held Coltrane’s landmark recording is as high as ever.

The first disc in this new edition includes the original 33-minute stereo version of
A Love Supreme and a couple of mono versions of the tunes that were in Coltrane’s personal possession.

Disc 2 is where most of the new stuff is: assorted studio outtakes from the recording of
A Love Supreme back in December 1964 — both a sextet session (featuring additional players Archie Shepp on tenor sax and Art Davis on bass) and the quartet session, which Trane eventually decided to go with in publicly releasing the record.

The third disc features the Coltrane quartet performing
A Love Supreme at a jazz festival in France in summer 1965, which is reportedly the one and only time that the entire Love Supreme suite was performed in concert. You can view a video clip of that rare performance here.

And to top it all off, the inner packaging of the new edition includes some archival handwritten notes and compositional sketches by John Coltrane himself, including the album’s original liner notes and Coltrane’s direct message to the reader. The accompanying booklet also has some rarely seen photos of Trane and (believe it or not!) a well-written essay by Ashley Kahn, who I consider to be the only jazz writer worthy of critiquing this subject matter and capable of doing a good job at it.

A Love Supreme has now turned 50. And I can’t imagine a better way for me to spend my own 57th birthday, today, than by listening to it once again and taking in all the feeling and deep vibes that have made this record the very special gift it is. The perfect way to begin a year.

And if you’re looking for a recommendation on how to kick off your own New Year in a meaningful way, you’ve got it right here. Just listen…and enjoy.

Song for All Fathers

Yesterday (21 June) being Father’s Day here in Japan, it seems appropriate to send out some belated warm wishes of the day — but not only for my own family. This tribute goes out to all the fathers of the world, that is, to the vaunted institution of fatherhood itself.

And there is really only one song I know, amongst all the songs I’ve ever heard in my life, that expresses the respect and love that we send to our fathers on their special day: “Song for My Father” by the late jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver.

original version of “Song for My Father” was released back in 1964 on Silver’s famed Blue Note album of the same name, a true jazz classic. Silver related how the song was inspired in part by the African folk rhythms often played around the house by his father, John Silva, a musician who hailed from the island nation of Cape Verde off the west coast of Africa (and who graces the famous cover of that Blue Note record, as seen in the above clip).

As you’ll see if you do a search for the song on YouTube, an amazing number of artists over the years have done their own cover versions of “Song for My Father”. But the first one to cover it with words was apparently the late jazz vocalist (and former Santana rock band singer) Leon Thomas, who
added some lyrics to the song, along with some jazz yodeling, on his 1969 album Spirits Known and Unknown:

If there was ever a man who was
Generous, gracious and good,
That was my dad —
The man...

Fast-forward to about 30 years later, and Horace Silver reclaims “Song for My Father” on his 1993 CD
It’s Got to Be Funky, as sung by the ever-soulful vocalist Andy Bey, with a completely new set of lyrics:

Our mother’s love is real nice
But old Dad sacrificed
For us too
Let us give him his due...

Jazz singer extraordinaire Dee Dee Bridgewater took those same lyrics and offered up her own rendition of “Song for My Father” in the superb recording
Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver, released in 1995. Silver even joined in on piano for this version of his famous tune, making it one of the more memorable moments in recent jazz history.

“Song for My Father” came back around full circle by the 21st century with yet another
reworked version of the tune by Carmen Souza, a young singer from Cape Verde, the same country as Horace Silver’s father. Souza, singing in Portuguese, added new lyrics of her own to the song, telling of the joy she feels of a father’s return home after being away for so long at sea.

Horace Silver made his transition to the spirit world at age 85, just about one year ago to this very day. Thankfully, he lived long enough to see the song he originally composed as a dedication to his own dad so many years ago taken to heart by many people around the world since then. It’s one of those songs that has universal appeal — which makes sense if you think about, since every person in the world has at least one father (some of us have many of them).

So, if you’re looking for a warmhearted yet affordable gift for that special patriarch in the family, I can’t think of a better gift than sharing with them the Horace Silver tune “Song for My Father”, no matter which version of it you choose.

This blog piece, then, goes out to all the fathers out there — mine, yours and everybody else’s. Consider this write-up a
song for all fathers, and feel free to share it with the papas and grandpas who have made a positive difference in your own life, just as many have in mine.

Much respect and love to them all on this day after Father’s Day!

An Outpouring Fit for a King

It was amazing to see how quickly and how widely the buzz had spread — in the news media, in social media, on mailing lists, everywhere. Musical royalty had passed on: B.B. King, the world’s reigning King of the Blues, had departed on May 14 at age 89. Tributes and story-sharing seemed to be coming in from every corner of the planet, an outpouring of respect and love for a man whose life as a musician seems to have left few people untouched, myself included.

We all tend to take for granted just how influential such popular figures are in our lives until they are gone. But B.B. King, it seemed, had never been forgotten or taken for granted anywhere in the world. He was reportedly working and planning another tour up until just a few months before his death.

Just a few years ago he was the subject of a feature-length musical documentary,
B.B. King: The Life of Riley, which was made by a filmmaker from Britain (home of some serious blues hounds). The film only now seems to be making it to movie theaters in the USA, so hopefully many people there will go and see it soon. The Life of Riley (Riley being B.B. King’s real first name) is perhaps the final testament and chapter to the blues king’s rich, long life and the legacy he now leaves behind. I recently got a copy of the DVD edition of the film, and it’s exceptionally well made.

You see, I have this thing about what I call The Great Ones in the world, those from various walks of life who leave such a deep impression on our minds, our hearts and our lives: They are, for me personally, an extended family-in-spirit. Nelson Mandela, Pete Seeger, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Dalai Lama of Tibet are just a few great souls that come to mind. I consider them all my fathers-in-spirit, and no son could be prouder of them or more humbled by their presence than I am. B.B. King, too, falls in that category for me. He was one of my fathers.

And apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way.

I had to smile when I saw a scene in the
Life of Riley movie in which B.B. King’s manager said that King was “father of us all”. I smiled again when I recalled a live jam session that B.B. King had recorded back in 1990 in Japan with some younger, well-known Japanese blues musicians. The title of the record: B.B. King & Sons. Need I say more? In a sense we are all the sons and daughters of B.B. King and many other Great Ones, both living and departed. Those of us for whom the blues means so much are now mourning his passing as something very close to us.

But at the same time, there is much to celebrate in the life of B.B. King, and it has been a real joy for me over the past week since his passing to go back and listen again to some of those old recordings, reminding myself once just how fortunate I am to be living in times like these.

Live at the Regal from 1965 is the B.B. King album that most blues fans would probably point to as the seminal recording by the King of the Blues, one that especially got all the rock musicians of the day so excited. I too would recommend that one, but would also suggest checking out another live album for any B.B. King fans out there: Live in Japan, recorded during B.B. King’s 1971 Japanese tour at some of Tokyo’s biggest concert halls. For many years this record was available only in Japan; now it’s out on digitally remastered CD and available to the rest of the world. A real gem.

B.B. King — Live in Africa ’74 stands out as possibly the best-ever live video concert footage of King in his prime. It was recorded as part of the three-day, all-star “Zaire 74” concert held in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974 in connection with the big boxing fight there between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. Luckily we can see the entire DVD here on YouTube. So, set aside some time and watch this masterful performance, and understand why there could only ever be one King of the Blues. Someday, someone is going to get wise and release this full live show on audio CD as well, though it hasn’t happened yet.

If the thought intrigues you of hearing B.B. King backed up live by a full philharmonic orchestra and one of the best American jazz-funk outfits — all at the same time — then you might want to check out the CD
Royal Jam. It’s a 1981 live gig by The Crusaders (RIP, Joe Sample) recorded at Britain’s prestigious Royal Albert Hall auditorium in London and featuring B.B. King as special guest. You may have heard King classics like “The Thrill is Gone” a thousand times, but you’ll never listen to them quite the same way again after hearing this record.

Blues Summit from 1993 also stands out for me as one of the classic CDs from B.B. King’s later career period. This is an all-African-American studio recording session, pairing up King with a number of his peers from the old school of blues. For a studio recording, the atmosphere sounds live and raw from start to finish, with such a great vibe by every guest guitarist and vocalist. The track I dig most is the jam between B.B. King and blues guitar master Albert Collins on “Call It Stormy Monday”, the old T-Bone Walker tune. This turned out to be among the last recordings for Collins, who died later that year of cancer, underscoring even more the importance of this CD as a chronicle of modern blues music.

And capping it all off is the 2012 DVD
The Life of Riley, with an accompanying two-CD soundtrack that spans King’s whole career. B.B. King was interviewed for this film just a few years ago at age 85, and in the movie he is alert, active and full of old blues stories to share. I’m so glad they got to make this film before he passed on. It’s a real cultural treasure, and we are all lucky to be the recipients of it.

As for myself, I got to see B.B. King live only once, and that was back around the mid-1990s at an outdoor concert at the Osaka Castle Park amphitheater on a hot summer’s evening. The local Japanese-Korean blues band Yukadan opened for King. It was a magical night I knew I would never forget; B.B. King, even at that age in his life, brought the house down.

More recently, about 10 years go, when my family and I were temporarily living in northern California, I had tried to get tickets for a one-night-only B.B. King concert at the local university but the tickets sold out before I could snag any. I still remember, though, the morning after that concert: As we were riding the city bus to go into town, we passed by a local chain hotel and there, in the hotel parking lot in all its glory, sat a big, brown tour bus emblazoned on the sides with the lettering
B.B. KING. He and the band had been staying in the hotel just around the corner from us. It did cross my mind, just for an instant or two, to demand our city bus driver to immediately stop the vehicle so I could get across the street to B.B. King’s tour bus and seek out an autograph from the Maestro. I was sorry I had missed the show.

But I find myself today feeling deeply grateful, both as a son and as a fan, that I can join the global wave of affection that is being directed at B.B. King in the wake of his passing. A
memorial page is now up on the official B.B. King website where anybody can post comments as part of that outpouring of respect and love befitting musical royalty. It’s a nice touch, and an appropriate way for the whole world to say a final goodbye to a true king. Maybe I will see you over there.

Blues for Brother Hilton

It was around 1993, during an evening at the Osaka Blue Note jazz club, that I knew I was witnessing a moment in musical history that I would remember for the rest of my life.

Tito Puente, the reigning mambo king on the timbales, had formed a new band, the
Golden Latin Jazz All Stars, and was taking it on the road in the U.S. and overseas. A recording by the band released the year before, Live at the Village Gate, had been generating a buzz in the States and burning up my own CD player here in Japan for months. I dragged my wife along to the club with me, thinking I might never see the likes of this moment again. That turned out to be truer than I could have imagined.

For on the stage that night was a musical dream-team of some of the biggest names in the Latin jazz world. Leading the pack was Puente and, as special guest, the legendary conga master Mongo Santamaria from Cuba. It was incredible to see the two aging musical giants on stage together, especially when the band jammed on Santamaria’s classic hit “Afro Blue” and brought the house down.

But there were a couple of relatively young lions in the band — musicians representing my generation — who I had also come to see: Giovanni Hidalgo, then considered the baddest
conguero around, and Hilton Ruiz, the piano player. I hadn’t known much about Ruiz then, but after that night at the Blue Note when his star had shone brightly on that stage, I became a permanent fan of his music.

Over the years I followed Hilton Ruiz’s releases on CD, including
Hands on Percussion, which I loved. Ruiz always had an innate sense of groove and swing, which was due no doubt to his years of learning from and playing with some of the greats of jazz, like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Mary Lou Williams.

I found over time that whenever I would have a Hilton Ruiz disc playing in the background, I’d just have to stop working or whatever I was doing and listen to him finish soloing on piano — and it almost always elicited the same kind of awed reaction from me:
Damn, he’s right on it!

Admittedly, Hilton Ruiz didn’t have one of those instantly recognizable piano styles like, say, Horace Silver or Mal Waldron. But what did make Ruiz stand out among many other pianists on the jazz scene was his versatility in playing various styles of music and his infusion of some serious Nuyorican soul into the hard bop genre of old-school jazz. And Ruiz, to my mind, was undoubtedly at his best in a live group setting more than in a studio session, always holding the fort down and yet lifting the music up and letting it soar.

And so it was a major shock years later to find out that Ruiz had died in some kind of accident in New Orleans, the
news of which was reported around the world at the time.

It seems that Ruiz had gone to a live jazz club in the city’s French Quarter one night in 2006 and was later found unconscious in the street nearby with serious injuries to his head and face. He never regained consciousness, and died at age 54.

The New Orleans police announced the death as merely the result of Ruiz falling down on the curb outside the jazz club and closed the case quickly. This raised suspicions that the New Orleans police department (some of whose officers apparently worked side-jobs as bouncers for that jazz club) were possibly involved in Ruiz’s death and now were covering it up. The police in New Orleans, after all, have never been known for being the most honest group of people around.

There were
calls for an official investigation into his death. The family of Ruiz sued the jazz club, seeking the truth and justice in the courts. But it seems that nothing ever came of either of those efforts.

Hilton Ruiz’s death remains unsolved to this day, a “
sad and mysterious” accident that extinguished one of jazz’s brightest lights. It has always been hard for me to conceive as dead someone whose music was so alive and so full of the passion and energy of life. I could never really reconcile that.

Yet though the man may be gone, his music has not been forgotten. A few years ago, Hilton Ruiz’s daughter, Aida, released some of her father’s final recordings on a CD,
Hilton’s Last Note, a collection of New Orleans-inspired songs containing a soulful blending of Latin, African and French influences.

The CD’s liner notes also include these bittersweet words: “To Hilton’s friends, fans and lovers of Jazz: be consoled in the fact that although we lost him decades too early, his music will live on for all to enjoy. Those who caused his demise WILL be brought to justice.”

I had a chance to contact Aida Ruiz through the website she had set up for keeping alive her father’s legacy, shared my condolences with her, and assured her that the spirit of Hilton Ruiz’s music continues to live on even in faraway places like Japan. I was deeply moved to read this story, “
The Life and Death of Hilton Ruiz”, in which Aida shared the tragic circumstances of her father’s death but also his richly lived life. I encourage you to take a few moments to read it too.

I’ve been listening recently to CDs of music by Hilton Ruiz and am still greatly saddened all these years later. Yet at the same time, I’m inspired anew by the gift of his music — and especially appreciative now that I got to see him on stage that night long ago at the Blue Note, truly a memorable moment in my lifetime.

Now, I’m not a musician by profession (maybe in my next life, if I’m lucky), but if I were, I’d compose my own final tribute to Ruiz by perhaps writing a song that goes something like this: a slow blues number that starts off as a lament or dirge mourning the passing of someone beloved in the family, then gradually growing in intensity and finally breaking into an all-out Afro-Cuban dance celebration in the true tradition of the New Orleans second line. A celebration, in other words, that gives the spirit of Ruiz a glorious send-off to that Great Jazz Gig in the Sky.

But since I’m merely a wordsmith, I guess I’ll have to settle for this blog piece as my way of paying tribute to someone whose lifework of creating musical beauty continues to mean something good to a whole lot of people in this world. So here it is: one for brother Hilton Ruiz. Long may his star continue to shine in the night sky.

Miles Electric: The Brew Still Cooks

The recent release of the new Miles Davis CD, Miles at the Fillmore, has got me going back in time these days to the late 1960s/early 1970s and digging the period when Miles’ electric band dominated the music scene, both in jazz and rock circles. What I’ve been hearing on this new 4-CD set knocks me out, and I’ve got to share something about it here.

This is not a review or a tribute — more like a reminder, if any were really necessary, of just how much of a musical giant Miles was in his lifetime and how, many years after his death in 1991, musicians and fans continue to stand in his widely cast musical shadow.

Miles hit gold with his 1970 studio album
Bitches Brew, with its double electronic keyboards, Brazilian percussion and loose funk-driven jams led by Miles’ blazing trumpet lines. Jazz critics didn’t know what to make of the psychedelic-sounding Bitches Brew when it first came out; many rock fans loved it. Today it ranks as one of the bestselling jazz albums of all time, a fact that makes some jazz purists shake their heads in confounded disgust and many others nod in enthusiastic approval. It’s that divisive.

But one thing was undeniable back then: Miles was breaking down musical barriers, pushing the limits of creativity and, yes, pointing the way forward for the coming generation of jazz musicians.

Miles was also accused of “selling out” to fame and fortune in the (mostly white) corporate rock music world back then. It seems to me, though, that if Miles and the younger jazz musicians of that time who played with him really wanted to sell their souls for filthy lucre, they could have found a far easier way of doing it. I mean, when you listen to the tracks of
Miles at the Fillmore, one thing is abundantly clear: These cats are working, not wasting time; the level of musicianship is consistently high, with little of the empty flash for which rock music is known. Miles was putting out music of both substance and style, far superior in many ways to what the average rock music band was doing at the time. How could that be considered as selling out?

Check out
this track from the new Miles at the Fillmore CD and hear what I mean. And if you dare, watch to the very end this 30-minute video clip of Miles and his electric band at the Isle of Wight rock music festival in Britain back in 1970. The band is playing out there, to be sure. Miles and band stole that day’s show at Wight — if not the whole five-day festival itself — before an audience of more than half a million people. (And yes, that is pianist Keith Jarrett on stage, sporting an afro and seemingly lost in an ecstatic trance. How the times have changed....)

I haven’t really been into rock music for many years, and now, after hearing the new
Miles at the Fillmore CD — and another recent kickin’ live release by Miles, Bitches Brew Live — I’m not likely to be anytime soon. This is it for me; music just does not get any better than what Miles Davis was putting down live and in the studio in those days.

Without intending to insult anybody’s particular taste in music: You can keep your cheesy classic rock/pop bands (no need to mention names here; you know who they are). For sheer skill, talent, craftsmanship and chops, where the music speaks for itself in both quality and volume, I’ll take the electrified Miles Davis band and the
Bitches Brew recordings anytime, all of which are still gloriously alive and cooking all these years later.

In the end, the real credit goes to the surviving members of Miles Davis’ estate, especially his grown children, who have been making such long-awaited live recordings of Miles available to the public in recent years. Thanks to them, we are reminded of days gone by when the music could be loud and good, funky and heavy, accessible and deep, all at the same time.

And the music still
can be — these new live recordings of electric Miles at one of his many creative peaks are making sure of that.

Goodbye, Hardbop Grandpop

In this new Summer 2014 edition of this website, I had planned to pay tribute to jazz master Horace Silver while he was still living among us and honor the rich legacy of his work in modern music. But in my race to meet the deadline, Silver beat me to the finish line.

As I was preparing to launch this new website edition with my tribute to Silver, I opened the pages of my morning paper, the international edition of the
New York Times, over breakfast yesterday and was hit with this obituary of Horace Silver on page 2 of the paper. Although many fans and followers had been expecting such sad news about the aging and ailing Silver for quite a while now, his passing at age 85 in New York still came as something of a shock to me.

The maestro has really left and gone on to that Great Jazz Gig in the Sky.

There is so much to say here about the influence of this giant in the musical world, who still has a large following of international fans (including here in Japan and including myself), but the words don’t seem to come easily right now. So by necessity, this blog entry will have to be a short one.

But you can bet that in the coming weeks and months, I will have lots more to say about the magnificence of Silver and the treasured body of works he leaves behind for us. I cannot think of any one single musician who has had more of a positive influence on my writing (and on my life in general) than has Horace Silver.

So, do stay tuned to this blog page for more on my future tributes to the “Hardbop Grandpop,” as Silver was humorously nicknamed some years ago. (
More details here on an outstanding album of that same name that Silver recorded back in the mid-1990s, one of his last recorded works.)

And in the meantime, I encourage you to check out
Silver’s official website here for information about his life and work. It’s a great starting point if you don’t know much about him, and a great place to hang out for a while if you do.

Also, be sure to take a look here at the
music review of a Silver CD on this website’s REVIEWS page that I had originally written up and was preparing to publish long before I got the news that he had passed on.

All that’s left to say at this point is simply: Goodbye, Hardbop Grandbop. Thank you for making the world a more bearable, beautiful and bright place through your music and inspiring approach to living life. You’ve checked out now, but the music remains here to remind us. And remind us it will — for many people around this great big world and for a very long time to come.

Thank You, Pete Seeger

Word has just come in that the legendary musician Pete Seeger has passed away in New York at age 94. It is with a mixture of sadness and gratefulness that I write these words — saddened, of course, that the Old Folkie, as he is affectionately called, is no longer with us but grateful just the same to have been touched by his music and life, even from a distance.

It does put a smile on my face to know, as
this news story reports, that Seeger was still energetic enough to be chopping wood near his home along New York’s Hudson River even up to a few days before his passing.

There is so much to say in tribute to this great musician and human being, but since I have said it already on the occasion of Seeger’s last birthday, let me share with you again the words I wrote last May. You can find them here on my blog: “
Old Folkie: Tribute to a Musical Treasure”.

All that’s left for me to add to are the words “Thank you”. Pete, you have, in your own way, made the world a much better place to live in and have shared with us all a rich musical legacy that we can all pass down to our children and grandchildren.

Thank you, Pete Seeger. I believe I can hear now some distant strains of “We Shall Overcome” being played somewhere in the far-off distant horizon, as you lead a heavenly choir in singing in full glory. It sounds so beautiful, I can’t wait to get there myself!

Old Folkie: Tribute to a Musical Treasure

If you follow my postings on Facebook, you know that I often honor the birthdays of people who have changed the course of events in their countries — and indeed the world — in the field they happen to work in: politics, social activism, the arts, whatever it may be. I do this because I always feel it is important to remember the lives of those who came before us and the sacrifices they made, that we may learn and follow in their footsteps for a better future.

But we need not wait until those people pass on and become ancestors and figures from a distant past. It is always better, of course, to honor and pay tribute to these elders and veterans of Life while they are still living and still with us. And today (May 3) being the 94th birthday of one those veterans of the Good Fight, I would like to pay tribute to an “old folkie” who lives and works among us today: Pete Seeger.

Folk singer, musical historian, environmental educator, social activist/organizer — Pete Seeger has worn many hats and served in many roles in his 94 years. In many ways, his life story is the story of “America” in the last century and into this new century, with many ups and downs and hard lessons learned along the way.

In the late 1930s during the Great Depression years in the United States, a time of economic recession and social upheaval, Seeger as a young man got involved in politics (including with the Communist Party) and dropped out of his studies at the prestigious Harvard College. He worked for a while for the U.S. Library of Congress, helping to document and archive the roots music of the United States.

In the early 1940s, as guitarist and banjo player, Seeger cofounded the New York-based musical group
The Almanac Singers, which played pro-labor union, anti-racism and anti-war songs in the American folk and blues traditions. Seeger often performed at “racially integrated” events at a time when it was dangerous for artists to do so. In the late 1940s/early 1950s, that band evolved into a group called The Weavers, and their records, featuring folk songs from countries around the world as well as blues, gospel music and children’s songs, sold millions in its heyday. It was The Weavers, more than any other band, that paved the way for the “folk music boom” that followed in the U.S. and internationally in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the mid-1950s, paranoia was in full swing as the political powers-that-be in America searched high and low for “communists” hiding in the arts, politics, military and everywhere else. Seeger was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in New York and ordered to name names, to answer questions about his past affiliation with the Communist Party and its members. One of Pete Seeger’s
answers to the committee stands out for me:

“I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.”

In the end, Seeger refused to give the committee the names and answers it kept pressing for, and he was charged with contempt of Congress. Seeger would spend the next seven years in court, fighting a legal battle to clear his name and stay out of prison. He eventually won in 1962.

Looking back now, going after Pete Seeger in such a public way was probably the biggest mistake that America’s “commie hunters” could have made. That is because even after he won his court case, Seeger was essentially blocked out of coverage by the major U.S. media companies, who treated him as
persona non grata. So, in the years following his court case, Seeger bypassed the media and took his songs directly to the people — especially to schoolchildren and university students. The result was that a generation of youth in the U.S. from that time grew up directly on the music of a true musical troubadour and storyteller.

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “Guantanamera” and yes, even the classic “
We Shall Overcome” are among the folk or gospel songs that Seeger helped to rework and re-release to the public, breathing new life into traditional tunes for the turbulent times. When the times called for it, Seeger went down to the American South and lent his voice to the Black churches and mass rallies in the 1960s during the height of the U.S. civil rights movement (which I prefer to call the U.S. “human rights movement,” since that was what African Americans were actually fighting for back then).

In June 1963 Seeger held a charity concert in New York City to help raise money for the organizations in the South that were on the frontlines of the Black freedom struggle. That historic recording is now available on CD in its entirety as “We Shall Overcome: The Complete Carnegie Hall Concert,” a vintage piece of American musical history.

Many of Seeger’s
songs of struggle and hope have stood the test of time and proven to be an indelible part of the rich musical heritage of the U.S. Every culture has its own version of a “people’s poet,” and if there is such a thing as an American musical treasure, then we can say that Pete Seeger is one of them.

But not only Americans were inspired by Seeger; musicians all around the world were too. The Chilean folk singer Victor Jara (who died in 1973 during the U.S.-sponsored military coup in his country), as one example, recorded a beautiful cover version of Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” for the Chilean people and their own freedom struggle titled “
El Martillo”. I know too that Japanese folk musicians were inspired by Seeger: One of them, Goro Nakagawa, in 1969 covered Seeger’s anti-Vietnam war song “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” (which was censored on U.S. television at one point), and it remains a part of Nakagawa’s repertoire to this day.

I think the late U.S. singer/songwriter Harry Chapin, though, put it best when he recorded a tribute to Seeger in the 1980s titled “
Old Folkie”:

For forty years now he's been pushin’ on
Carrying the dream ’cause Woody [Guthrie]’s long gone
He’s the last voice singing that “bound for glory” song
And if you never seen him, you might take a look
He’s the man who put the meaning in the music book
Yeah, the world may be tired but Pete’s still going strong....

Over the past few decades, Pete Seeger has taken on the environmental pollution plaguing the United States and other related issues. His environmental education programs for young people aboard a sailboat that sails along the Hudson River in New York state, the
Clearwater, are still being held, and they have without a doubt helped raise public awareness of the importance of keeping waterways clean.

In these early years of the 21st century, Pete Seeger still remains relevant. In January 2009 Seeger
performed at the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. president, and a few months later Seeger’s 90th birthday was celebrated with an all-star musical tribute at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Last year in 2012, having topped the 90-year mark, Seeger released another inspiring song, “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You,” encouraging people to get out and get involved in changing the things around them that need changing. You can see a wonderful
video of the song here.

While you’re at it, sit back, take some time out of your busy schedule today and have a look at a well-produced documentary film about Pete Seeger titled
The Power of Song, which was shown on U.S. public television in 2007. It tells the story of the “old folkie” better than I've ever seen it told — the songs, the issues, and Seeger as the conscience of a nation that often seemed to have no conscience. You can watch it in its entirety here.

So while he is still here with us and not yet gone, let me add my own personal wishes to one who has fought the Good Fight in his lifetime and never lost sight of the most important role of music in the world: to inspire, to speak up, to bring people together, to help correct wrongs in society. It has been a real joy to spend the day today going through Seeger's life and music, and being reminded once again of the powerful spirit of music in our lives.

A very Happy 94th Birthday today, Pete Seeger....and thank you!
See Older Posts...