Wednesday, December 2, 2015

It's All Good: A John Sinclair Reader reviewed by Kirpal Gordon


It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader by John Sinclair, published by Headpress,, 298 pages / ISBN: 9781900486682; with free music-spoken word CD download 


Don’t sweat the tautology in the title---It’s All Good: A John Sinclair Reader is a transcendent, philosophically tough-minded journey forged from one writer’s mating the New American Poetics with America’s blues-jazz tradition and its rock-soul-funk-punk permutations. Published by Headpress (their motto: the gospel according to unpopular culture) the collection celebrates Sinclair’s 44 years on the culture scene with 22 of his poems, 22 of his essays and the ultimate lagniappe: thirteen works in performance with a variety of bands and great musicians from a free CD download. 
For those disheartened by the plethora of Sixties-inspired memoirs that are but advertisements for oneself, It’s All Good is powerful medicine. Sinclair (born 1941) is a force of nature, a high-minded, principled Midwestern with the hipster code of a viper like Mezz Mezzrow in one brain’s hemisphere and the political agenda of a leftie like Saul Alinsky in the other. How’s this for chutzpah: while locked up for handing a couple of joints to a narc who infiltrated his poetry class, Sinclair does a lot of his time in the hole for his efforts in organizing black prisoners to advocate for better education programs. Such racial solidarity may seem inconceivable in the slammers of the twenty-first century, but check Sinclair’s roots in “I Wanna Testify”: “I came to Detroit in 1964 as a refugee from white American society attracted to this teeming center of African American culture … the birthplace of the Nation of Islam and the hotbed of bebop, the place where you could hear jazz all night long and cop weed or pills whenever you wanted to. The plight of black Americans was known to me from the street level, as I had the honor of spending a number of my formative years in Flint, Michigan, under the direct tutelage of some of the fastest young hipsters on the set, intense young men and women who held Malcolm X and Miles Davis in equal esteem and who introduced me to the wonders of daily marijuana use as a means for dealing more creatively with the terrors of white America” (p 42).
A tale of such enthusiasms needs historical context, and Headpress has wisely arranged the material chronologically which allows Sinclair’s various responses to unfold their own logic. The first essay opens with John Lennon’s 1971 lyrics---“It ain’t fair, John Sinclair / In the stir for breathing air” (p 12) and Sinclair’s release from prison after serving twenty-eight months on a ten year sentence, thanks to the Michigan state legislature re-classifying pot possession as a misdemeanor only days before Lennon’s sold-out concert brought attention to his cause. While keeping eye and ear on the Big(ger) Picture, Sinclair candidly reports, looks back, updates and muses upon his various tenures as a community organizer, arts advocate, cofounder of the White Panther (later Rainbow People’s) Party, manager of the rock band MC5, director of the Detroit Jazz Center, producer of the Ann Arbor Blues & Jazz Fest, editor of altie newspapers, reviewer of music, well loved disc jockey at WWOZ in New Orleans and presently an ex-pat in Amsterdam. 
That’s a lot of hats to wear to a revolution, and Sinclair has equal but separate gifts in prose as well as in verse. So kudos to Headpress for wisely taking a triple-headed approach: the matching poems enrich the essays and vice versa, and the spoken-word-with-music selections are so real-deal-alive as oral expression that they add another meaning to the written verse. For example, these lines in “everything happens to me” may read maudlin on the page---“race traitor & renegade, / beatnik, / dope fiend, / poet provocateur, / living from hand to mouth / & euro to euro / sleeping on the couches / & extra beds of my friends, / a man without a country”(p 105)---but with Jeff Grand and the Motor City Blues Scholars hunkered into a groove underneath him, Sinclair’s gravel voice bends those vowels so ironically, one can’t tell if, like double-masked Papa Legba greeting you at the crossroads, he’s laughing or crying. That’s Sinclair’s true identity: he’s a signifyin’ bluesman, not a village explainer.    
Unmetered, mostly unrhymed (free) verse does not lend itself easily to the American songbook, but Sinclair, with his mind on Monk and Muddy---half in bop and its touch of Sunday, half in the Delta and its electric children---has timing to spare. On “Monk’s Dream,” he emits such joy, wit and wisdom in a manner all-of-a-piece with his accompanists Luis Resto, piano, and Paul Nowitzki, bass. On the upbeat blues, “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” his variable American foot fits like an old brown shoe as he references Sonny Boy Williamson’s lyric to tell the story of the music coming up from out of the Mississippi fields and juke joints traveling north upriver from spooky acoustic to an even spookier electric sound.  With Rockin’ Jake’s encyclopedic harmonica work shading the same unfolding and Kirk Joseph’s sousaphone playing the bass line, the band underscores Sinclair’s lament: “nothing would be returned / to the people of the Delta / … this is what the blues is all about--- / ‘fattening frogs for snakes’ / & watching the mother fucking snakes / slither off with the very thing you have made.” 
He produces such oracular momentum and incantatory brilliance---he “sounds” like William Blake draws or the Book of Jeremiah reads---that on “brilliant corners,” with just a single repeating guitar phrase from Mark Ritsema, he held this listener in rapt attention through six pages of verse celebrating the bebop experiments in Harlem meeting the writers around Columbia, especially a “hip football player / & would-be sportswriter / from Lowell … so well known at minton’s / … that the musicians on the set / named a song after him, ‘keruoac.’”  Weaving in the lives and works of Ginsberg, Cassady and Burroughs, Sinclair concludes, “& a road out of the stasis / began to open up / & out / in front us--- / & we followed it,” repeating the last line in a haunting shout. Nothing against the cottage industry that has grown up around these writers, but their actual story is rooted in the music and no one swings that tale harder than Sinclair. Ditto “We Just Change the Beat.” Hearing the song as it changes tempo (genre) is worth a thousand pages of musical essay.
As for Sinclair’s essays on music, they are documents of respectful brevity, especially his eye to Iggy Pop, his “audience” with Irma Thomas, his love of the MC5 and his manifesto in “Getting out from Under.” Moreover, the range of the musical material the essays cover in It’s All Good, the quality of his poetry and his remarkable gifts as a performer reveal his immense value to us. This griot is a national treasure, a vital link in a literary-musical lineage from Walt Whitman, through the Harlem Renaissance, into Bebop and the Beat Generation, deep in the Black Arts movement and beyond as our jazz trad weds World Music. If this isn't America's greatest cultural export, then what is?  
An earlier version of this appreciation appeard in print at American Book Review.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Power of Belief by Jared Weiss

Have you ever heard anyone say, “Oh, I’m glad I thought small?,” because I’m sure I haven’t. Coming into Hofstra University's WSC 1 Composition course, without even realizing it, my perception of my peers was quite provincial. This class taught me not to underestimate the value of anyone and not to sell anyone short, including myself. From the interviewing process, to the essay on college admissions, the essay on identity, running the gamut to all of the bolts and screws upon which this class operated, I received a head-on experience of ex ducare. Kobe Bryant once said, “The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do,” and that’s what this class did for me.

The first time I realized that there was more to this class than is derived from the course title was during my interview with Ian. Upon first glance, he seemed like an average student, but there was so much more behind those glasses of his. To maintain his privacy, I will only tell you a bit of what I learned. First, he had gone through hardships, which occurred from circumstances beyond his control, but these really sparked a fire in him, causing him to start working harder than ever before. Moreover, he is very serious, yet compassionate, as I was able to discover from talking to him for twenty minutes.

I became even more shell-shocked as I heard the other essays, which made me realize how diverse each of us was and what experiences each brought with them. Coming from a high school that basically kept everyone living in a tiny bubble, being at Cornell University for only three weeks, and then suffering through a traumatic illness, I wasn’t really sure what to expect or how everyone would react to me. The illness started last fall with a severe pneumonia in one of my lungs after being misdiagnosed with the flu. I was placed into a medically induced coma for two days and put on a ventilator and feeding tube. After this, I had an autoimmune response to the infection, so my body produced too many antibodies which blocked certain receptors in my brain and caused my body to have these odd movements; I couldn’t walk or talk at all at first. I was in  four different hospitals for a total of six weeks, but thankfully the doctor at the second hospital was an unbelievable person who figured out everything right away and placed me on high doses of steroids over the next few months. I also had to go through numerous therapies and had post-traumatic stress disorder, which was treated by a psychologist. In addition, I had to re-learn how to do basically everything that I had been capable of prior to the illness. Consequently, I was more than pleased with the results of the class: KP and all of the students made me feel like I belonged, and that was more than I could have asked for.

The class structure was definitely suitable for facilitating this environment of openness. From Day One, we students had to move our chairs into a circle, including the professor. This was a huge change from high school where students sit behind the teacher who acts as the master while we take information into our short-term memories and then spit it all back on the tests, otherwise known as the banking concept of education (Friere). If I didn’t know any better from the problem-posing model of education, I would say that the school hierarchy system is really messed up. However, in this class the professor was seen as our coach, who helped to make all of our impulses work in one cohesive unit rather than a bunch of individual parts. The typical model of teaching leads to ruthless competition as to who can be the best at regurgitating information. On the other hand, the paradigm for this class led to cooperation.

“After the fellow answered a particularly odd question, something about a mountain in Argentina, my host looked at me and said, ‘How much do you think I’d pay that guy to work for me?’ ‘How much?’ I asked. ‘Not a cent over $300---not per week, not per month, but for life.' I’ve sized him up. That expert can’t think”(Shwartz). This reminded me of “Life After College: The Challenging Transitions of the Academically Adrift Cohort"  by Roska and Arum whose research revealed, “Those who can’t critically think will be living with their parents their whole lives.”  This course taught me that it’s not about how many facts you know that can be looked up on Google nowadays, but it’s more about how well you can think for yourself.

Moreover, another helpful technique that made this class what it was involved reading each other’s essays and all of our multiple drafts prior to handing them in. This allowed for each draft to develop and become stronger, until it was our best piece of work. In addition to each student reading our drafts, KP, unlike any high school teacher, actually read through each of our essays in detail. Everything we handed to him was scrutinized and marked up very carefully in a way that we could use his corrections to improve our next essay. I know for a fact that he read everything carefully by the way he was able to size us up so accurately just based on our autobiographies. For instance, right away he knew that I was a baller, and a guy who wouldn’t quit in sports or in life. This shows dedication on the part of the teacher, really taking the time to get to know the students. I think that this rubbed off on each of us as we modeled this behavior and took the time to realize how much bigger the class really was. I don’t just mean the size of it, but I’m talking about the scope of experience and knowledge that was brought to the class. KP taught us that as weird as we are, he’s weirder, and that whatever we thought would disqualify us from being an asset to the class actually qualified us. This allowed us to show our true colors and to be ourselves despite what many of us had been told in past classes.

Going along with the idea of finding ourselves through writing was the essay on identity, which happened to be our fourth assignment, after we had learned what defines a person. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.” Our true identity cannot be restricted or taken away by anyone and we must realize that no one is above and beyond anyone else, only in mindset. Kobe Bryant also said, “I don’t want to be the next Michael Jordan; I only want to be Kobe Bryant.”

There is nothing empowering about being someone you are not just to get people to like you. It took tons of reading to realize that colleges are playing games on us. In other words, they drive you to portray the image of someone you are not, just so you can get into college. Wait, but I thought that the point of college was to help you discover who you are and what you want to be? This is where the lie is located. We’ve been taught throughout school up to this point that you have to be the quintessential student just to have a chance with college admissions. After learning what I have from this class, I realize that I would rather just be me, because that is the best thing I can be. We as humans tend to have approval addiction, in which all we want is for everyone to love us and clap for us in every action that we take. He who attempts to please everyone pleases no one. So why should I care what anyone else thinks about me? I am my own person so, if I say I’m going to do something, then I’ll do it. This is one of the parts, however, where I slightly veer off in viewpoint from what KP tried to show us. I feel that in order to get to where you want to go, sometimes it is necessary to step on other people’s feet. This is just what I’ve gleaned from reading biographies on NBA greats Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Also, before you can worry about anyone else, you must first worry about yourself. To that end, by thinking bigger for yourself, you indirectly give others the power to do the same for themselves. For instance, it doesn’t come natural for me to get in the way of others, but in the case of my Cornell basketball tryout, I knew what I had to do and from the time the tryout started nobody could get in my way. Typically, I like to give other people more shots than myself; however, I realized that I needed to shoot the ball more than usual just to be seen.

One of the activities that allowed me to see the power of expanding my thought horizons and really engaged my interest in what KP was trying to show us was the vase or the facial profiles activity. After much discussion as to whether this picture that he showed us was the profiles or a vase, KP told us that it was “both and neither.” This relates to everything that we see in our daily lives. Don’t judge something in absolute terms, but instead open your mind up to objectivity and say to yourself, “Maybe there are more dimensions to this than I first saw.” Humans are especially quick to judge other humans because this helps the mind to place people in categories. This is what creates stereotypes, and when someone comes up who doesn’t fit a particular category, the mind does something known as sub-typing in order to place the exception. However, if you keep an open mind and say that a person is “both and neither” the picture you had originally thought, then you have achieved a clearer state of mind.

One more thing that this course taught me was that it’s not about the grade you receive but rather, did you grow as a result? If I must answer the question as to what grade I should receive, my answer would be an A+. Why should I think anything else? That would be selling myself short. I consider myself an A+ thinker, an A+ person, who always gives an A+ effort, so that is what I think I deserve and have rightfully earned. Moreover, I saw a gradual improvement from essay to essay and was able to feel myself developing my own distinct voice. It had been demonstrated by papers and tests in my prior levels of education that I shouldn’t think for myself and I should reflect the work and thoughts of the teacher.  This course, however, strengthened my own opinions and allowed me to bring them out in the best way that I could, not the best way some stuck-up, test-driven, banking concept teacher told me to think. This class took me away from the conventional learning and allowed me to see the presence of alternative and more effective models of teaching.

 “Afterwards, the salesperson said to another, ‘I’m not going to let a $1.98 customer take up all my time and make me take the store apart trying to find him what he wants. He’s simply not worth it’” (Shwartz). This was essentially the attitude that I think most of us had coming into this class, that everyone else was just a “$1.98” person who had nothing more to offer. Leaving this class, I see that every human being has so much to offer, so everyone is essentially priceless. If nothing else, I learned to not sell anyone short of their potential, and have realized that there is so much more to life than just the “vases” or just the “facial profiles.”

It's now six months since I wrote this essay. After a great summer of rehab, I'm stronger physically than ever and am on both college talent-level basketball and soccer teams. I do a cross fit regime 4-5 days a week and can jump 34 inches at the moment. Although my speech isn't all better, it's still improving. Also, I'm taking classes at NYU this semester but not sure what I will do next semester.


Works Cited

Freire, Paulo. "The 'Banking' Concept of Education."

King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” African Studies Center at UPENN. 16 Apr. 1963.

Schwartz, David J. “The Magic of Thinking Big.” Book. 1959.

Roska, Josipa. Arum, Richard. “Life After College: The Challenging Transitions of the Academically Adrift Cohort." Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning. July-August 2012.

"Kobe Bryant." Xplore Inc. 13 May 2015.



Thursday, November 19, 2015

Amiri Baraka's DIGGING: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music Reviewed by Kirpal Gordon

Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2009 / 436 pages/ ISBN 978-0-520-25715-3
Amiri Baraka (1934-2014) was certainly a brother on a mission, but which mission has been the question over the years. In Tonight at Noon: A Love Story, Sue Mingus recounts that Allen Ginsberg, having just “married” Sue & Charles at a Manhattan party per the composer’s request, expressed concern that Baraka had brought very young children to the stage after his reading to chant "We hate whites" & raise their arms in a black power salute. Mingus mentioned that Baraka had no army & no guns. Ginsberg retorted that Baraka had a voice; Mingus said for letting off steam. That happened in the mid-Sixties, around the same time the photo of the cover of Baraka’s new book, Digging, was taken. Ever since, it seems Baraka has been met by an unsettling either/or: moral outrage at his (ab)uses of language (Ginsberg) or a knowing nod to a cat letting off steam & maybe blowing some “out” notes in the heat of his solo (Mingus).

In Digging, however, Baraka's lifelong mission has never been clearer: 1) to expose troublesome either/ors, from a) the basic think/feel split (Descartes) to b) the double consciousness (du Bois) which makes being black & American two things & c) from writing about jazz (critic) to writing that is jazz (performer); 2) to celebrate a spiritual wholeness that exists in the music beyond the wrath of a jealous theocrat, the poison of a colonial mind, the greed that drives the music & lit industries & the exploitation of talent in late XXth century-to-now capitalism.  

Similarly, the method of his mission couldn't be clearer. Chapter 1 opens with a very defined model: “... Afro-America is inextricably bound not only to Africa, but to the U.S., Pan-America (the Western Hemisphere, the actual ‘Western World’), &, through its Pan-African diaspora (pre & post & always, right now, modern), international culture. So the word Griot, the poet, musician, historian, story teller, is getting known all over the world. Though ‘French’ as transmitted ‘symbol,’ it is the best-known term for the West African Djali (or Djeli, but Djeli ya also means the Djali’s act, his ‘getting down’ to take us up & out), the Central & South African Imbongi, the East African Mshairi or Ngombe (rapper), the Yoruba Iiala, all carry the same general meaning...” (p 5).  With its emphasis on expression, humor & improvisation---“Another name for the Djali is the Gleeman …not a ‘Town Crier,’ he’s a Town Laugher” (p 6)---the griot/djali is the vehicle by which Baraka seeks to restore the oral as the primary mode of our literary & musical heritage just like it used to be for most of our human history & will be again. 

At his best Baraka blows beautifully Whitmanic, long-limbed, blue-black, ancient-to-the-future prose choruses from a deeply lyrical place of great mother wit & be-bop charm: funky, nutty, then bird-like in flight. It’s at once in the music, a commentary on the music & a key to the music’s spirit & root. His deepest & most memorable passages are tone poems of Ellingtonian elegance---intimate, knowing, insightful; a tune you knew that you now know better. Check his word solos on “The Great American Songbook,”  “Rhythm,” Newark’s “Coast” & “Influence,” his addendum to Blues People, his knock-out “When Miles Split!,” his double takes on Trane (why his legacy continues) & his eye-ear-memory to Art Tatum, Max Roach, Sarah Vaughn, Albert Ayler, Monk, Duke, Nina Simone, Bill Cosby & Abbey Lincoln. He mixes musical critique, personal anecdote, behind-the-scenes confessional, fan notes, the ride over to the gig & “bopera theory” to create that you-are-there sense just as it’s going down, son.

Divided into three sections---Essays; Great Musicians; Notes, Reviews, & Observations---Digging is theory, scholarship, autobiography, criticism, historical perspective, journalism & free verse in continuum. Its intent does not seek “the myth of objective consciousness” (Theodore Roszak) but to swing trope-a-dope vibrant like an after-hours jazz hang. The writing style is far-fetched, contrary, multi-dimensional, etymological, signifyin', unnerving, outrageous, pun goofy, spirit-talkin’ spooky & driven by song, dance, movement. He’s not summing up like a dead lecturer; he’s in the momentum invoking the living spirit of the music (as he does on stage), stirring the alphabet pot in order to re-view/re-new figure & ground as an interactive Gestalt that challenges our given notions of black, brown & beige, fact & fantasy, art & artifice, time & space.

Digging, however, also serves up some unnecessary challenges as well. For one thing, this “talking book” is “crying out” for an editor. Forget words! Entire sentences, paragraphs & arguments repeat verbatim more than twice. Granted, many of these 84 chapters first appeared somewhere else as liner notes, poems, reviews, interviews or magazine features, & like any improviser, Baraka pulls out some stock riffs, beats, runs, honks, hooks & alternate fingerings in his flight gear to get us up & out. However, left unedited, these knee-jerk repetitions of inventive language become one-note clich├ęs. When he quotes the same lines of his own poetry in different essays, it’s clear he needs more than an editor. At its worst the book reads like a garage sale with his meandering asides promoting unrelated projects of his own as well as his family members’. 

In addition, a few of the musicians in Part Three happen to be leading bands that AB's sitting in with on the show or record date he’s reviewing! Call it an honorable hustle or a lagniappe, but more perplexing, from a reader’s point of view, is what’s missing: Some chapters end with a date, but some don’t, particularly his vexing views on Springsteen & Wynton Marsalis. Too bad the UC Press krewe (this is the thirteenth volume in Music of the African Diaspora) didn’t put some shade on these inconsistencies & excesses or at least include an acknowledgments page or an index in the back for reference. This unique jazz elder & gifted performance poet who this reviewer has seen blow so many audiences away, from school kids to the square & cynical, deserves more editorial rigor in print, especially to celebrate his thesis that poetry is music.

For those who already know, go right to the last entry, dated 4/10/06, “Jackie Mc---Coming and Going,” which reveals an autumnal side to Baraka, the man & the mission. While Gil Noble reminisced at McLean’s funeral about growing up with JMc in Sugar Hill to the sound of Bird & the message of Bop, AB realized, “… that Jackie and I are of the same generation, me about to be 72 by the time this comes out” (p 408). His mind wandered back to his days with Jackie & Dolly on the Lower East Side & the song Jackie wrote for his daughter, “Little Melonae,” on Let Freedom Ring, how that cry rang throughout the world & the free jazz that followed. “Alas,” Baraka writes, “it is no more today, which is why the superpowers run amuck throughout the world and Greenwich Village looks like Coney Island and hip Soho resembles nothing so much as Tiffany’s garden”  (p 411).  

Regardless of the changing times, Amiri Baraka (RIP) was still out there, on the scene, on the bandstand, on the one, writin' like he’s talkin' to ya & running that voodoo down. Digging goes a long way to restore what is essential in his larger gift to us.


An earlier version of this appreciation appeared in American Book Review.  

Friday, November 13, 2015

Howard Mandel's Miles Ornette Cecil---Jazz Beyond Jazz: A Review by Kirpal Gordon


Miles Ornette Cecil---Jazz Beyond Jazz celebrates a brilliant marriage of form (you-are-there journalism) & content (free jazz). Reading Howard Mandel’s Faulkneresque sentences---& laughing aloud cheering scoffing making connections re-membering)---is so much like listening to the music he’s writing about. One feels one’s own initiation into a new way of listening as if one’s mind-skin could stretch to absorb every nuance. Like his three subjects, Mandel knows how to improvise & stand under the understanding at the gates of Eden.
As a young turk he honed his writing chops working the graveyard shift at Chicago’s Daily News, a gig that helped him develop his sinewy sentence style.  Like a horn player ‘shedding on long tones, this extra lung strengthened his many tiered thoughts on the New Thing & beyond. Even more so: by aligning his vision/mission as a critic/advocate with theirs as composers, he has created an open form with which to respond to an open form. By contrast, those of the more button-down rhetorical persuasion venture into the realm of free jazz with their just-the-facts-ma’am journalism & it’s all outside the event looking in. After all, what happens in a “composition” of Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor or even the later Miles Davis is up for grabs. They don’t “do it on the paper.” At times there may be a lead sheet, but the music is truly being composed as it is being played & it is being played by everyone all at once. This, of course, requires extreme confidence & a sense of presence in the performers; it’s high risk. To deliver it to readers, therefore, requires a reviewer willing to risk his own ego in the service of the music.
Whether he’s being charmed or chumped out of his own biases, Mandel brings to his thirty-plus-year relationship with the Big Three a beginner’s mind & a zesty participation mystique in the event. The autobiographical element is disarming, funny, reader-friendly & context-evoking. The result: a level of personal engagement with a trio of unique talents often misunderstood & certainly enigmatic but not inscrutable. Mandel reveals them to us as hard-core urban black tribal lore, the survival code of rule breakers who confront a “rule beyond rule,” & to reveal their “jazz beyond jazz” he delivers a “crit beyond crit,” fully qualified for the task. Mandel is the awe-struck kid with a backstage pass.  As Nat Hentoff wrote, “It's really reporting, as well as listening. This is jazz from the inside---an essential book, not only for new listeners but for historians of jazz now, & in the future. We hear the musicians speak, informing the author---& us---thereby adding to how much more of the music we come to hear.”
Like the living jazz tradition (not the dead packaged product long time passing), Mandel sits inside the music “with no direction home.” Rather than a definitive account encrypted on the head of a pin, he takes us down the rabbit hole in a realm of intuition & spirit talk, underground, down here where we belong.  Mandel brings to the tea party a wide range of cultural interests & the changes of mind he has made along the way. George Kanzler noted in JazzTimes that “Mandel assumes many roles here---elucidating critic & devoted fan, knowledgeable listener & Boswellian acolyte, evangelist & champion of the avant garde---all taken on with infectious enthusiasm.”
This sense of infection is the final reason to shout about this publication. Deeply versed in the American grain, Mandel summons an encyclopedic knowledge of show biz, vaudeville, pop, classical, funk, soul, rock, hip hop, world beat, blues urban & country as he weaves together assorted streams on the art of critique, race relations, American history & the political & spiritual overtones of the music of Davis, Coleman & Taylor. For those who know little of free jazz, these pages serve as an excellent primer. For those who wonder why Miles, a commercial superstar, gets included as a major influence & for those who never grokked Ornette’s harmolodics or the wild madcap genius of Cecil, Mandel is a trustworthy guide. 
One may find oneself re-reading it cover-to-cover & playing the music mentioned over-&-over & hearing it finally as if for the first time. This book delivered that gift for this reviewer. Mandel’s love of our music shines through the turning pages, an invitation to join the ongoing event, thereby becoming part of the community he makes. Because Mandel can handle “the cloud of unknowing” without sweating how far-out or in-close his take, willing to be what he is, a fool for free jazz, he’s restorative for us all, even the feinschmeckers who think they know better. 
Referencing H. L. Menken’s “Criticism Of Criticism Of Criticism” in the front matter---“he makes the work of art live for the spectator”---Mandel gives us new ears to cohere the beyond that Miles, Ornette & Cecil continue to establish. Now that his blog is up & running we won’t have to wait for his next book; we can surf along as he continues to do what not enough music critics do these days: hit the clubs, halls & street corners to go ride the music & come back & tell us what happened. 
Miles Ornette Cecil---Jazz Beyond Jazz is available on Amazon. Follow Howard Mandel’s posts at An earlier version of this review appeared in Big Bridge.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Has the University Stolen the Fire in Our Bellies? A Proposal to Activate & Celebrate Student Responsiveness by Ria Shah

Have you ever felt your own electrically excitable cells being introduced to one another? A thousand tiny neurons are suddenly able to communicate with a part of your brain that used to be silent, dull, and most importantly, useless. New circuits and pathways are found, resulting in the permutation and combination of new ideas. This is what living and learning, insight and reflection look like. Our existence as humans relies on our getting the most out of our firing neurons, which digest information and navigate new thought waves. The decision is inbred: either we fight to keep our neurons interactive or we succumb to the inevitable—the death of thinking.


*  *  *  Real Learning  *  *  *


Many individuals that modern society holds to great prestige embody the most diverse collection of understandings. Praised for their unique contributions, their core mission was first to learn the trade of humanity and then their profession. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Franklin and Noam Chomsky are masterminds whose understanding of leadership, the sciences, politics and other subjects have infused their critical thinking and problem solving with an advanced level of creativity. This cream of the “successful humans” crop is made up of those who dwell within the multi-faceted realm of scholarship. The question becomes: do we accept that those who achieve are born geniuses and simply wait for the next one to pop up or do we consider that some great teacher instilled a curiosity and a will to learn which allowed them to transcend their momentary disequilibrium and experience the information-digesting, synapse-building, neuron-firing type of learning?


Trace the circular pattern: from writing stems linguistics; the origins of speech are rooted in psychology, which is the gateway to the physiology of human thought. From the study of the brain comes the entire sphere of subjective social and political happenings that are being processed inside our internal sensory machines. Our human species does not have the ability to separate ourselves into impermeable substances. As Walt Whitman drummed in the opening lines of “Song of Myself,” “I celebrate myself, and sing myself / And what I assume you shall assume, / for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (1). In other words, every subject we encounter, break down, digest and re-combine into new orders is another addition to a singular and unified field attempting to uncover the “why” behind everything.  As in all highly functional “thinking caps,” one is able to better make sense of a specific subject through having an advanced understanding of another and the opportunity to look through multiple lenses.


However, an intense amount of work to achieve a more porous knowledge-absorbing membrane may push the frightened masses to skip the hard work of multi-faceted learning and specialize. Indeed, this is the vigorous yet unfortunate phenomenon that has gripped our generation. The solution to this problem, which is located at the intersection of poor learning habits and a lack of will, comes only after the doubts and “easy-way-outs” have been destroyed.  The setback many encounter with having the curiosity and will to learn, in this broad sense, is that they have not fully learned how to learn. Are we apprenticed to the “banking concept” method (Freire, 1), which prompts a student to lose perspective and mechanically program a single subject into their hardwire, useful for regurgitation only, or are we creating a methodology that helps us ignite learning via our own passions for the subject matter? With the latter, the focus lies not in memorization but rather in internalizing the subject—learning something in a way that tattoos concepts onto the membrane of our unconscious.


Many insist that this method produces a jack-of-all-trades graduate who knows a little about a lot and is therefore ill fit for our specialized and technocratic society.  Such a point of view contributes to the paradoxical structure that today underlies post-secondary education in the United States. Our system consists of choosing a major, taking courses specific to that major, and then ruthlessly searching for a job for which only the major (one you had been rushed into choosing) can qualify, thus foregoing “a broad general education that cultivates respect for the diversity of different disciplinary approaches to the same questions” (Smetanka, 4). The academic dean of Saint Vincent College, Smetanka notes, “What’s your major? has become one of the most common ice-breaker questions during [college] orientation and beyond” (5). It’s a primary example of how schools mold some of the brightest 18-year-olds into limited and peripherally challenged smarty-pants.  The solution to this spaghetti-maker system, churning out the same shaped students, lies outside standardized learning.  Those who contend our current system already caters to the diverse nature of human consciousness do not acknowledge that the conformity students experience from grade school is the same force that crowds out the growth and development of individual capabilities.


Leonardo Da Vinci, master of a range of skills, wrote, “Everything connects to everything else.” The more diverse our understanding, the deeper our problem solving becomes. So if the educational system is the primary method for fostering learning, why is our system limited to the classroom? A few answers are already taking place: expanding curriculum to include the arts, advocating for broader undergraduate “majors” and restricting specialized courses to junior and senior years. However, time spent outside the university—either traveling through a new country or volunteering for a local enterprise—could be the proportionate mixture of application and understanding that students need. This idea of “learning outside the classroom” has taken root in the high school-university-occupation model through building non-traditional and oddly shaped paths of learning.


*  *  *  Inside the Gap  *  *  *


The so-called gap-year has been growing its stock over the past few decades, inviting those who dare to invest into a realm of exploration and experience. “A gap-year is a structured period of time when students take a break from formal education to increase self-awareness, learn from different cultures, and experiment with possible careers” (American Gap Association Data & Benefits, 1). Unlike the university system, the gap-year provides students a dual-sided front: it faces the super-specialized mind by dragging it into real-life scenarios while it simultaneously enhances the student’s thought process—similar to a petri dish filled with a culture of multiplying and interacting cells.


The original intention of a university was to create well-rounded members of an educated population.  Not until the university system became the university industry did this praiseworthy ideal shift to the highly competitive, bankrupt-producing machine we find today. When the industrial revolution hit our nation, we allowed the era’s capitalistic personality to infiltrate the way in which we educate (Springer Link, 2). The vital loss of classical curriculum and the rapid rise of mass schooling directly contributed to the overall sense of rush implanted in our high schools. We are told to finish our schooling as soon as possible and get into the workforce! Yet within this confining ideology that we have sewn into the American educational system are fibers flexible enough to reflect the growing needs of present society. Today’s generation is inherently going to be the collective group to bring the gap-year from its knees to its feet. Through spending time in an entirely new setting, young minds have no choice but to re-evaluate what it is they truly care about, the principles that they stand for and the mark they wish to leave on the planet.


When one feels trapped, confined to the thoughts and ways of others, it is not only a problem for that specific person, but it creates much more of a problem for society as a whole. We may all possess a “wild tongue” (Anzaldua, 1) but many who have been raised to be good students may not have simultaneously grown the courage to voice it, especially if it criticizes the status quo. Fortunately, the pursuance of any sort of gap-year or modification to the traditional high school to university transition is itself a step outside of the standardized box that society has labeled as the only way. The fear to speak and the pressure to stay silently stuck in the box is the monster I have met on the “art of learning” battlefield. It’s the same monster actively pushing all of us students away from our diverse interests, and in the process, stealing the fire in our bellies (and brains) to learn.


*  *  *  Personally Accountable  *  *  *


As a junior in high school, when faced with the opportunity to graduate a year early and take a gap-year, my keen sense of curiosity was met with precedence. I walked into the principal’s office, made my request and braced myself when she responded that taking time off of school could limit and even deter me from college admission. I would have to remain in high school for one more year even though I had completed all required courses—in essence, stuck in the system. Though nervous and scared, I could not stomach the thought that I simply could not because it is not what everyone else does; little did I know that standardized thinking was leveraging the people who had taught me how to know myself. Right in front of me, many of times overlooked, were my parents—both of Indian heritages yet one raised in Mumbai, India, and the other in Cincinnati, Ohio. Their complementary methods of molding me were like a pair of magnets; sometimes I learned that there were two extremes to a way of thinking while at other times I saw the magic of congruent communication.  My mom, coming from a life of maids and the conservative mentality in the Indian subcontinent, pushed me from the beginning: Books over boys; no getting up until there is no more food left on the plate; school, snack time, homework, then play… if time. My dad, knowing the “American way,” pushed my brother and me in a different way: Sports are a requirement; experiment with them all but inactivity is not a choice; ‘What did you do at school today?’ is not a rhetorical question; the more thorough you are, the more points you score; never act out of two things, greed and/or fear. It’s these concepts, engrained in me from the time I wore diapers, which has led me to believe in everyone’s ability to make a choice, and that if there is a will, there will be a way. Out of this North Star that I carry in my pocket at all times came the firepower to break from conformity.


Mom and Dad had pushed me out of my comfort zone in childhood, and so now I, with all the courage I could manifest, pushed them in the same way. Why should I spend an entire other year in high school when I could spend a year doing something unimaginable? They agreed! I felt the butterflies, the tingles in my fingertips and a heartbeat unlike any other when I walked the halls of my high school in rural Ohio knowing that I was leaving a year early. Indeed, I would have sweaty palms, a lump in the back of my throat and several cases of panic knowing that I was moving to New York with my parents and brother in order to keep the four of us under one roof—for that was the reason I had decided to graduate a year early. What kept me most on edge was that by the time we heard of my dad’s new job on the east coast, college application deadlines had passed. One year spent outside the American education system—would I ever get into college? Would I be a vagabond in search of what everyone else had magically received in their senior year? Even more worrisome, would I be eaten by a monster? I was far from confident that this was the right move. The doubts ran in hysterical circles, and it was not until I landed in Lubumbashi, the capital of the copper-rich province in the Congo, in December of 2013, that I found the reason, initially hidden in my gut, why I was meant to graduate early: service to others in providing educational opportunity. I spent the year working for a not-for-profit organization called Malaika, which operates a School for Girls and Football for Hope center in the village of Kalebuka, about a half hour drive from the town of Lubumbashi. The year took me to many places: to the home of Malaika’s founder, Noella Coursaris Musunka, in the Costwolds of England; to Oxford and London; then to Paris, France, and to Geneva, Switzerland. After the glamour of the adventure settled in, the real work began.


We would rise at about seven a.m. inside the home Noella has built for her mother and sisters in central Lubumbashi—the walls flaunted matte colors of green and orange, providing a subtle Carpe Diem. We would arrive at the school after a sweaty, bumpy drive in a van, where continuous French was thrown around and my mind tried to pick up all the new words.  Inside the school I felt a need to sit down at the back of a classroom and hear the English being taught and numbers being added. After a week of watching the local village come out every day to act as security guards, cooks in the cafeteria and custodians for the bathroom stalls, I soon realized I was not the only one taking in new sights. 


*  *  *  Congolese Treasure *  *  *


One of the teachers, all of whom were trained at the University of Lubumbashi, approached me with a smirk and asked, “Why have you come here all the way from New York at the age of seventeen? Don’t you have school or work or even friends to take part in and enjoy back home?” I stumbled, paused and retreated into my head: Why am I not in an American high school surrounded by kids my age, worried about who my prom date is going to be or which AP credits will best suit my college resume? I had no answer. However, later that same day when I exchanged glances with the five-year-old Congolese school girls, I felt their smiles telling me, “Hey, you’re just like us!” I could not understand where this feeling of pure bliss was coming from. Then I thought back to a prior experience I had at twelve years old while visiting India with my family. Walking the streets of Mumbai, tightly gripping my mom’s hand, a boy my age with a grin on his face, grateful for the two coins in his palm, looked me in the eye. Instead of seeing him as separate from me, I felt as if I were staring into my own reflection. He wore a thin cloth to cover his midsection, and the rest of his limbs—wrapped in shriveled skin the color of hazelnut—were not fully present. One leg bent backwards and the other, chopped off mid-thigh, allowed him to walk on his hands for the few meters of the block he occupied. Distorted in many ways yet perfectly positioned, he was artistically flawless in delivering a unifying message. I saw myself inside his begging body. I realized at this moment that we human beings are fundamentally forbidden to shield ourselves from events outside our comfort zones. This unknown, unnamed boy, born into the lowest caste and purposefully made to warrant sympathy, rests inside all of us—it’s the voice telling us that we are all one in this meshed-out game, so struggle to be your best and I’ll struggle to be mine. Thus, at the intersection of my ancestors’ heritage and the life I had known in rural Ohio, I accepted my identity as a mystery larger than I could ever imagine but enriched through the experience of love and acceptance.


While in Africa I could not begin to understand the after-affects of this “high,” but my version of a reorganized style of learning was something I needed to tell the world about. I was using my education to assist in the development of projects from infrastructure to curriculum. Throughout working with our Malaika team to help map out new community well sites, individually teach English to young French-speaking minds and collaborate with teachers on their lesson plans, I came to learn of a covert and camouflaged enigma in these peoples’ chests. Unrecognizable at the surface, its existence only becomes discernable when interacting with these children and diving into their community. One day I saw this treasure: they wanted to express what they could do even when food remained scarce, light remained limited and families would sell them in order to survive—amidst it all, the girls remained on the hunt for knowledge. Repaying a visit to the same teacher who had approached initially, I asked her how they maintain this treasure-piece. She said, “We ask our girls how they envision fixing the homelessness and starvation they encounter, and our jobs become simpler. We don’t need to motivate them to learn; we simply have to show them the toolbox. The creativity they then bring forth is why I come here everyday, and why I work here.”


*  *  *  The Notecard Ceremony   *  *  *


Due to my own experiences inside the “gap,” I consider the gift that the school provides for the people in the village of Kalebuka, Congo, as my personal reason to hunt for knowledge. I have transformed into an advocate for our human responsibility to our ancient ancestors, to our future, and especially to our current being to find our own unique and irreplaceable reasons to hunt for more.  The few months between the gap-year I had spent abroad and the beginning of my freshman year at Hofstra University provided me with the proper combination of time and thinkable matter. Post-trip, I prepared for a fundraiser in my hometown of Mason, Ohio, in which I attempted to do justice to the gratitude I felt for Malaika and the gifts I had brought back from the year. These gifts were mainly the new thoughts I stored. In lieu of this event, while sitting on the plane ride home from London’s Heathrow, I pulled out a stack of notecards—each a snippet of what I wanted to share, yet what I most wanted to convey was not just the words and ideas written down, but the acts of capturing such moments. On the plane, I wanted to jump up and shout to passengers: There is a whole other life out there that we are always missing some part of; we need to be in search of this—the lacking trait or destination. Confidence in goodness means that wherever you are meant to thrive will stumble upon you. To be who you are is sometimes left out of the curriculum in pre-K to 12th grade—never succumb to the fear or greed that others or a system may impose. Our neurons will never forgive us for not having the will and courage to take that extra step!


Well, let’s just say I screamed it in my head for fear of getting kicked off the plane. Nevertheless, the notecards do provide some additional insight.


The After-Effects of Under-aged Exploration: We’re told to listen to our elders; we’re also told the best way to learn something is to fully immerse ourselves inside it. So I guess the secret to learning is teetering somewhere on the dotted line in between. This is what I learned while not being in school—what you think when you have time to think. It is not against schools of today; schools are the seed to all community growth and development. It is simply encouragement to learn more about oneself and others at a younger age. A gap combined with classroom learning could be the recipe that everyone needs to try for themselves in order to relish the unmatched flavor.


While preparing for my trip to Africa, a close mentor who worked inside Malaika said to me, “There are three experiences that will change your life: death, poverty and having your own child. They create emotions inside of you necessary for full comprehension of what life means.”


I felt an overwhelming gratefulness and appreciation to my ever-supportive parents, who, along with the non-profit foundation, sent me into the depths of rural Africa.


Meeting up with co-workers from past summer internships in Geneva, Switzerland, led me to think of the friendship existing inside a stranger.


I believe in all types of help… but education is a lifeboat you are giving to someone to brace all types of water.


It teaches you confidence in knowing that you have ample opportunities, with a little bit of willpower and the internet, to help change what you have seen.


My mom came to visit me during my stay in Cheltenham. In a candle-lit Thai restaurant, over dumplings and hot-and-sour soup, she said, “Money is there one day and gone the next.” Only later did I dwell on this. Today, we use money as a threshold-marking measurement from which chasing dreams both begins and ends. I am not able to stop thinking about how to reach my dream: the ways, the possibilities, and the methods of doing so, though what I have realized is that I cannot place it inside money’s capsule which remains sealed. I need to place my bets on following this adrenaline-rush, mind-blowing goodness from which spurs flexible, moral, and intangible growth.


While teaching a group of middle-aged Congolese men and women in our community center in Kalebuka, a young man stood up and asked me (again), “You’re seventeen years-old, why do you even care?” A lot of them seemed curious in regards to why I was there. My response was a mixture of two things: I care more now because of what I have seen and I had originally started to care because I saw how much others did not care.


I am storing an upgraded mind map. With the manifestation of a big problem, I have learned to search for the opportunities hidden inside. I would then be drawn to an action I have termed as rethinking, which means giving myself enough time to think through potential solutions, strategize and utilize creativity as a means of solution-creation. These three then led me to simply working harder than ever before. The last route on the map points from this hard work to raw inspiration exuding from the world into me and vise versa.


*  *  *  Gap’s Running for Office  *  *  *


Irony never hides. Who would have thought that being told to not break my stride from high school to college would have been the start of a journey that has me on continuous “look-out” for my next gap? My first time inside this unconventional solution shook my neurons until they fired on a new frequency. All of a sudden, there were zero degrees of separation between me and the coolest girl in school and simultaneously no separation between me and Esther, who returns home in the Congo to a mud hut, no food, and an hour of light left to make out the words in her English book. I say zero degrees because the experiences occurring to one and stemming from one eventually matriculates—as the snowball effect depicts—into the human sphere of experience. This truth is the gap’s subtle yet primary motivation to attract each and every student. Imagine a cyclotron that students could step into, speak to the “gap-year” and step out with every moral cell in their body gushing with stimulus and the will to learn. This is the gap-year’s campaign trail on the verge of a victory, manifesting to us how it can save the human race from moral extermination, which is entrenched in a lack of interest and the infamous single-subject route to an occupation. Learning how to learn can only come after we have the untiring desire to, in fact, go deeper than how learning is initially presented to you at the surface. The dots all connect when one personally encounters the metamorphosis on a grand scale.


Imagine your brain as a sheet of paper, white enough to absorb the entire color spectrum yet bounded by four corners which restrict these patterns from coming alive. We find ourselves in this situation all too often—better yet, we condone such behavior from the outside world and more importantly from ourselves. Our brains need to acknowledge and dismantle their corners. When learning is instead well rounded it inevitably asks the brain to learn from outside the geometric boundaries we use to frame our thought processes—projecting our personal kaleidoscope on the world. However, color is most vibrant on a background most untainted, natural, and authentic. We have to find our infinite white space. The gap-year between high school and college, argued as one of many solutions to the system, is just that—only one way. So get up, go, chase after it, find your own version of the gap, whether it means taking an unrelated course that interests you or leaving the walls of a classroom to teach those underprivileged. This theory does not prescript radical decisions. Instead, it proposes the application of learned knowledge in a new, untried way in order to learn, grow, and create an internal environment addicted to the development of one’s self. In the words of Richard Buckminster Fuller, a 20th century inventor, architect, systems theorist, author and designer: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete” (Mindvalley, 3).


Re-published from "Falling Through the Gap," October 24, 2015,, Ria Shah's blog on education and consciousness. Check it!

Works Cited


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