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.