Traveling Through an Analog World

By Lynell George

via The Frame/KPCC and LAist

LOS ANGELES-BASED musician Anthony Wilson‘s latest release, Songs and Photographs, reminds us what we’ve lost in our departure from the analog life — both in music and in snapshots, rich repositories of emotion and memory.

The guitarist, arranger, and composer is the son of the late great jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Gerald Wilson. While jazz is his homebase, Anthony often deftly finds his way into different settings, sitting in with a mix of artists — among them Paul McCartney, Aaron Neville, Kenny Burrell, and Willie Nelson. He’s also been a member of Diana Krall’s ensemble since 2001.

His latest release combines his own music and photography. This new work is an “album” in a broad sense: an unfolding collection of images, both audio and visual. It’s meant to be taken as a whole, intended for reflection.

To read more click over to LAist and you can hear the review along with sound samples here at KPCC/The Frame.

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“Soundtrack for a Lost L.A.”

SORROWED by its vanishing soul, Ry Cooder struck out on an odyssey to rediscover the city he loved and nearly got trapped in ‘Chavez Ravine’

By Lynell George, Times Staff Writer

IT’S ONE of those grim afternoons when the whole of L.A. seems to have simply up and vanished; disappeared behind a dirty, gray scrim of smog and haze. You could have sworn you saw it just a moment ago. So where did it all get to so fast?

On days like this, Ry Cooder would just as soon tuck himself away anyway, conjure up something else to fit in the absence.
His hideaway-cum-laboratory is an old relic of a studio — Sound City — slipped into a nondescript cul-de-sac in Panorama City. “Things here still have tubes and things,” says the musician-composer, taking a brief pause in a small kitchen area redolent with the bitter scent of overheated coffee and must. “It’s an old busted-up place. Isn’t it great?” His face lights up as he takes in the clutter: magazine stacks and mismatched mugs and someone’s shoes parked in a corner. In a rumpled white T-shirt over line-cook checks and navy blue Vans edged in orange, Cooder looks like a veteran swing-shift man on break, ready to pull another double.

It’s not so far from the truth. What Cooder’s been busy constructing in these beat-up rooms is a commensurately fading story: his latest recording, “Chavez Ravine” — a long glance back at a now-vanished Los Angeles and a poor hilltop neighborhood, rich in traditions whose memory hovers like a dream.

Spending time with him over many months, it becomes clear the project is his most personal and, perhaps, most challenging to date. It’s been an exercise in memory, history, myth-making — trying to reconstruct not just a physical place, but a way of life, plank by plank.

The tale he has set out to tell is a path as steep and full of turns as the unpaved roads leading up to that old neighborhood: By the early 1950s, the mostly Mexican and Mexican American residents of the La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde neighborhoods were evicted to make room for an expansive federal housing project. The plan pitted idealistic liberals against progress-minded conservatives, both businessmen and politicians — all under the long shadow of McCarthyism — and then came the curveball. By decade’s end, the Los Angeles Dodgers won out, crowning the hilltop with their then-state-of-the-art stadium.

Cooder’s project, with elements that reach well beyond the recording studio, has occupied all four corners of his imagination and has required a lion’s share of his energy and time. Even in a career arc that has been as wide and idiosyncratic as his, it is incomparable to anything he’s embarked on in his 40 years in the music business — including his critically acclaimed and creatively rejuvenating Cuban project, “Buena Vista Social Club.”

For the native Angeleno, exploring the Chavez Ravine story is not so much about setting the record straight, but setting down a different sort of record. “I’m just simply saying, ‘I remember the way L.A. used to be. And I like it that way,’ ” he says.

On this day late last summer, Cooder has just about hit the two-year mark in this ambitious musical assemblage, steeped in collaboration with seminal artists from L.A.’s Latin music scene. He’s closing in. The tracks are recorded, the liner notes written (by journalist Ruben Martinez). The record, he hopes, will be a 360-degree exploration of a neighborhood — in texture and mood. Its palette — a melange of styles: corrido, jazz and pop, conjunto and some shades of R&B — is as diverse and hard to pinpoint as Los Angeles itself.

He’s got more ideas, other ways to make this out-of-mothballs story resonate: “I want to build this ice cream truck, like the old Good Humor trucks that used to go through the neighborhood,” he says. “But inside the box, we’ll have a diorama of the ravine. On the outside, I want to have a mural where every panel tells a piece of the story. I’ve already found the guy. He lives in Texas. He’s a genius Chicano artist, Vincent Valdez.”

Then, of course, that whole process should be documented, Cooder figures. For that task, he’s tapped a longtime friend, filmmaker Stacy Peralta. “It can be filmed for a DVD to be released with the record instead of doing one of those god-awful videos,” he says with a rueful shake of the head, as if he’s bitten into something bitter. “It won’t be textbook-y though.”

By this time, he has wound himself through a warren of dim hallways and back into one of the recording booths. Time and place seem to have pulled away. Under the yellow glow of spare light, it might as well be 3 a.m. in here. And while there are concessions to progress and innovation — a laptop here, CD changers there — it could be 30 years ago, perhaps more. Something Cooder likes. “Records are not museum pieces. This studio is retro, older. So it’s complementary to textures we’re after.”

The man in the engineer’s chair, Jerry Boys, is no stranger. He also worked on “Buena Vista” — both the record and the film. He’s ready now to cue it all up for Cooder, who settles into a patched-up sofa, chin in palm, to listen.

There’s the establishing sonic shot: In “Poor Man’s Shangri-La,” nighttime Los Angeles comes to life, a homeboy (in the voice of Cooder) spinning stories just as a space vato sweeps by in his UFO looking for a party, a fusion of grooves — partly tropical, partly citified and full-on joyous.

On the next track, the great Lalo Guerrero, the father of Chicano music, leaps in with a brazen one-two punch, a strutting corrido, telling of the boxing Chavez brothers who lived in the ravine’s Palo Verde and La Loma neighborhoods.

Further along the road, the space vato returns in the voice of bandleader Don Tosti (“Pachuco Boogie”) to warn the residents of the ravine’s future. “He’s saying, ‘The barrio is changing; they are going to bury our homes.’ But nobody believed him. They thought, ‘We have rights in America,’ ” Cooder translates, over the chilliness of Juliette Commagere’s dreamy vocal, just as the song collapses into a smear of otherworldly echoes and whirs.

It bends this way and that. In English and Spanish then back again, it’s moody, zany, seductive and uncategorizable — more cinema or opera than garden-variety pop album. Cooder is smiling as it all crawls by. In this space, in this bubble, everything is light and easy — until it isn’t. Track 10 unscrolls: a slinky reworking of Leiber and Stoller’s “Three Cool Cats” featuring Willie G. of Thee Midniters fame, Gil Bernal on tenor sax. Cooder taps out the rhythm, until he hears something. Something off. Boys hears it too. Without a word or even an exchanged glance, all stops — like a train in trouble.

The colloquy is over. Cooder’s disposition has gone dark. He and Boys huddle for a moment and Cooder settles, disconsolate, scrunched back into his corner of the sofa. “I like environment in music,” he explains. “It locates something between you and the listener. And that was just starting to sound too roomy. Too vague.”

“It’s got the arm in the wrong place,” Boys says. “We’ll do it again. Where do you want to start, Ry?”

They dismantle it — the timbales here, Bernal’s horn there, the purring girls there, the sound of tires on pavement — isolating the problem, which just might be something with the timbales. “The bass drum is sitting about right,” Cooder says. “Well, let’s see if we can make it walk across the room.”

After much tinkering, Boys hands over a CD. Cooder makes for the door.

“Gotta hear it the way people do riding around. If you’re in your car it won’t be as glorious and pretty as it is in that old studio,” he says, venturing outside. It’s inky black out by now. He climbs into his Toyota truck and slips in the disc. “It’s got to be funny and mysterious right away. Otherwise, you’ll just stop and go get a sandwich.” The sounds of some far-off neighborhood at twilight fill the car, and Cooder nods along — the girls purr, the timbales strut, the dogs bark. It doesn’t sound bad. But what he doesn’t say is that it sounds good enough. “Close but no cigar.”

DEEPLY COMMITTED

Of late, it’s been difficult to tell if Cooder is haunting a neighborhood or if it’s haunting him. He’s been on this ride since encountering photographer Don Normark’s dreamy pictures at an Echo Park gallery more than three years ago. The two connected and Normark told Cooder of his plan to make a documentary about his time reacquainting with the families from the old neighborhood. He needed some music and Cooder figured he could help him out. “After all these years, I had this floating stuff in the drawers.”

But it didn’t stop there. “Why not do some music?” he figured. “But in order to do that you have to write it. There aren’t any songs about Chavez Ravine as such. So that’s what got me going.”

He motored down to Palm Springs to meet with Guerrero, whom many credit with helping to articulate the Chicano experience in song — mixing Spanish-language lyrics with swing and R&B, giving birth to a new sound.

Next Tosti, the colorful bandleader who tipped off a music and dance craze in 1948 with his zoot suit-inspired “Pachuco Boogie,” which married jazz and jump-blues with a mix of Latin rhythms to become the first million-selling Latin record.

They wrote some tunes. “I’d go to see Willie G., get him going. I’d say, ‘Look what I did with Lalo here, see, there’s something to this.’ ”

But even after Cooder handed over a mix for Normark he couldn’t seem to shake the story. “I started to think, ‘This is a really good thing to do. I’m going to do it some more.’ ”

Three years and more than $350,000 of his own money later, Cooder is knee-deep in it. He’s faced disappointments and delays, and has weathered the passing of two of the old-guard contributors, Guerrero and Tosti. “Who knows? After all of this, I may end up living in a cardboard lean-to somewhere.” (The record is slated for release June 14 from Nonesuch/Perro Verde Records.)

But Cooder’s career has been nothing if not unconventional and full of risks. Born in Santa Monica, he began playing guitar at 3. By his mid-teens, he’d planted himself firmly on the L.A. folk and blues scene in the early ’60s. He immediately amassed an impressive roster of associations — Jackie DeShannon, Taj Mahal and Captain Beefheart, among others.

A slide-guitar virtuoso and a keenly adroit composer, Cooder has been called many things — an “archivist,” a “world music pioneer,” labels he finds utterly distasteful. “You come back from Cuba and it creates this illusion that you’re some sort of guy with a big, thick stack of airline tickets just going everywhere. Just whimsically cruising around the world,” he says. “That’s far from the truth. I don’t do that. I don’t even like the idea. I like to stay home.”

Though he’s spent a good portion of his career absorbing and extrapolating all manner of roots music and source sounds — American blues, Tex-Mex, Hawaiian, African and Indian — Cooder puts his work in more straightforward terms: “I consider myself a fan of the music.”

But what has often sent him searching, digging deeper for the purest elements, is a quality that can’t be simply articulated: “There are people who generate excitement … who are transcendently gifted,” he says. People like Gabby Pahinui, the Hawaiian slack guitarist, or Cuban guitarist Compay Segundo. “Call it a ‘source person’ if you like. I try to understand these things. How is it done? To this day, it’s a mystery.”

Consequently, Cooder has earned disparate camps of fans — those guitar heads who want to know if he cut his own bottle necks; “the traditionalists” who sink into the crevices of his roots music; or those who came later drawn by his contemplative, horizon-less film scores, including “Paris, Texas,” “Johnny Handsome” and “The End of Violence.”

“Chavez Ravine” falls somewhere in the middle of all this. It certainly plays on Cooder’s ravenous curiosity, his itch to get at the source of things. But it is also the story of his native city and his complex relationship with it: The crass overpopulated L.A. that he races to get through — the city it has become — and the one full of open space and secrets that resides in his memory.

This project then was the perfect work for him at the perfect time. “After Cuba I just did not know, ‘What the hell are you gonna do now? You’ve seen the best in the world. The last of the true oracle-grade vernacular musicians.’ Everything was old and crumbling. Even the people. You come back here and the past is dead.”

Cooder, 58, has been trying to get a fix on something long gone, not so much to pay tribute to it but to prop it up and dust it off and show us all how it is still vibrant and essential. From the beginning, the challenge was, “To build a mood … something that you can sustain every day. Because you have to get up every day and look at this thing.”

A HUNT FOR IMAGES

Cooder is sitting in the shade on the courtyard near the Flower Street entrance of downtown’s Central Library. It’s a hot day, but you can feel the crispness of autumn edging into the air. In his sand-colored work pants, a muted floral shirt and a pair of canvas shoes known affectionately around the neighborhood as “winos,” he would blend in as just one of the afternoon idlers ruminating on the benches and banisters if not for his big, goggle-like sunglasses, the frames the yellow of taxicabs. “I’ve been here for an hour, getting my head together,” he says. “Had some coffee.”

He gathers up his tote bag full of his essentials — a slim, caramel-colored Filofax, a large Moleskine notebook, some CDs and some stray notes, then makes his way down to one of the sub-basements where the library’s photo collection is stored. As well as looking for images for the CD booklet and others to hand over to the Texas muralist, Cooder has hopes for a map. “One of those big ones that used to hang in offices downtown that they’d frame. The ones that show the whole city.”

Carolyn Cole, who heads up the photo collection, brings over a pile of pictures in a folder marked “slums.” “Aliso Village. Bunker Hill too! Oh, I’m going to get seriously sidetracked,” Cooder says. He pages through picture after picture — bucolic L.A., old-growth trees, Victorian houses, street corners that have recognizable names but not features. “I spend at least a minute every day being mad about what happened to Bunker Hill,” he says with a grim head shake. “Bastards got away with murder!”

A bit later, Cole leads Cooder to another room to look through other folders and boxes of photos. Then he attacks the street atlases. He opens one and sniffs the pages: “This is real good but I need something larger.” One of Cole’s colleagues sails in with a roll-up map. Hand drawn, blue ink on tan, the streets — Malvina, Reposa, Palducah — clearly marked. “This is it. This is the thing. Very exactly.”

Some days aren’t so smooth. He’s been on all manner of chases since this whole thing started. He’s crisscrossed the region — on the 60 Freeway, the 110, the 5, the 10, after one thing or another. He’s run up thousands of minutes on his cellphone securing permissions, talking to his musicians, people at the label. He’s darted out to Whittier in the driving rain to pick up snapshots; he’s been to Texas to meet with artist Valdez. He catches up with the crew working on the ice cream truck, and talks to filmmaker Peralta, whose schedule is starting to get squeezed.

Amid it all, Cooder has been caught up in other research — reading, talking to writers and scholars. Finding the book “The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism” by Dana Cuff, a professor of architecture at UCLA, was a crucial turning point. “Her book set the mood of a hidden world … and hidden beauty of the past. It was all about what had happened to a way of living in the city,” he says. “It went beyond the idea of ‘good old times’ and ‘how sad.’ Because ‘how sad’ doesn’t get you anywhere.”

The book opened a clear path for his imagination. “I thought, ‘Hallelujah! All I have to do is score this book — treat the book as a film.’ The book got me…. I read it five, six times…. Then I began to convert it into a mood. You’ve got to convert information into a mood so that you find yourself in it.”

While he’s after the story, he’s also after the ambience and atmosphere of hidden corners of the city and tapping into precisely what that might feel like — the spiky quarrels between mother and daughter, vatos on the corner, the apprehension of the advancing bulldozers, the rush of a Saturday night opening up under the stars.

“I think this is so unique,” says his son, drummer Joachim Cooder, who is also one of “Chavez Ravine’s” key collaborators, stitching together samples taken from Tuvan throat singers, old drum machines and random Cuban sessions for the backspace. “With the Cubans, you just go there and play. It’s totally not thought out. And if it was thought out, it would end up being not what you thought. But this is his hometown and he is such a connoisseur of L.A. history.

“So this is a whole other ballgame.”

THE VISION EXPANDS

By February, Cooder’s had another brainstorm. Most likely, it won’t be his last.

Peralta’s out and a discussion with another potential filmmaker, Philip Rodriguez, has consequently cast a light on an area he hadn’t explored. “The psycho developer wreaking havoc,” Cooder explains. So that got him thinking. Then writing. What emerged was the song “In My Town.”

“It’s very dark and fairly horrible,” he says with equal parts assuredness and glee. “The idea is that you come out of the neighborhood and then you suddenly hear this psychopath. It just boots it into a different realm.” He rubs his hands in a way that says, “Very nice.”

He books another old-school studio — Studio B at Capitol records — and flies in jazz musician Jacky Terrasson from New York and sits him down at Nat Cole’s old piano.

Not only is there this new song, Cooder has now decided against the film (too costly, too time-consuming). The record has been re-sequenced and remixed yet again. “I just kept having this horrible leaden feeling. Now, I feel good instead of that hideous sense of disappointment. Like, can’t I please like something?”

He’s also decided to pen the liner notes himself, realizing he had to locate himself in the project somehow. “If I back off, people will wonder, ‘What’s the deal with that?’ ” He’s been keenly aware from the beginning that he may be viewed as an outsider: “What does some boy from Santa Monica know about all this? You better know what you don’t know.”

Writer Martinez (“I’ve never been fired in a nicer way”) admits he had his antenna up when he got the first call about the liner notes. “But Cooder is a different kind of animal when it comes to the intercultural project,” the author of “The New Americans” says. “His collaborations are a world apart from those of Paul Simon or Peter Gabriel where [artists put themselves] front-and-center against an exotic backdrop. Cooder’s projects weren’t ego-driven. On ‘Buena Vista Social Club,’ his name was not [big] on the cover. His guitar was buried in the mix. So I’ve always respected him for that. And if nothing else, recording Don Tosti’s and Lalo Guerrero’s swan songs will earn his place in heaven.”

Cooder has been obsessed with getting it right.

“By the time he came to me he already had the concept but wanted to be able to put a heartbeat to it,” says Willie G., who collaborated with Cooder on nearly half a dozen songs.

As an L.A. native who had family who lived in Chavez Ravine, Willie G. (born William Garcia), feels that this project is not just a tribute to a neighborhood but to Guerrero. “Lalo was out there shaking the trees. His music helped us to bridge our identities. Our community is so much more than a location. We have so much more than any politician could try to take away from us,” he says.

While the album is a celebration of collaboration, one would be wrong to think of “Chavez Ravine” as “Buena Vista Social Club: L.A.” That’s what’s also sort of needling Cooder — trying to get people to think beyond what they’re accustomed to and explaining a record that really has no precedent.

So how to make that dent — create a bridge that listeners will cross? “With Lalo and Don and Willie, we had the real quality,” Cooder says. “We had the possibility of making the whole thing take you somewhere where you weren’t quite expecting to go. The journey is a real journey. Not just cool or styling cool. Because we are just swamped with that now.”

For many longtime Angelenos, the album’s wash of moods, rhythms and cultural touchstones will be deeply resonant. That’s because in many respects “Chavez Ravine” is the soundtrack to an intrinsically Latin city constantly in flux. But its story extends much further. “There is a part of this [neighborhood’s story] that is fundamentally Los Angeles,” says author-professor Cuff. “It’s about landscape, about Latino history, architecture and modern housing. But it is a story of eminent domain that plays out in a lot of cities. Small houses of poor people of color become the terrain of the big dream of city fathers,” she says. “That’s why the story of Chavez Ravine hooks into one’s heart. There was no easy answer. Big dreams are often imperfect. But we shouldn’t stop ourselves from dreaming big.”

‘THE VISUAL ELEMENT’

It’s getting on to evening and Cooder’s holed up at the Santa Monica Airport, where he keeps a small studio. It’s cozy, dimly lighted and a bit scuffed up around the edges. It’s quiet but what he also appreciates are the low, spread-out vistas that obscure most traces of the modern city.

Just a few steps away, there’s a small auto shop where a crew works on the ice cream truck. He peeks in for a bit. Geoff Giammarco has been pulling 12- to 15-hour shifts on the truck, though all of it — mural and diorama — won’t be ready until long after the album is released. Up on blocks, all brushed silver, it looks as if it’s already in motion — almost as if it has taken flight. “This is now going to be the visual element,” Cooder says. “Imagine that riding up Solano. Going to one of the reunions. Playing the music.”

Although it is still only spring, he’s already not too happy with what lies immediately around the corner. Meet-and-greets and interviews and “meetings with men in the square-toed shoes.” Performing is out of the question. “Tosti’s dead and Lalo’s dead. So, really, what would we do?” And anyway, Cooder says of his performing days, “Afterward, I always feel worn out, like a [helium] balloon under a chair after a party.”

In his perfect world, this record alone would be all he’d need. It would be a marker, a way to keep this way of life present and among the living.

“I try to say something there about the timbre of life. If you look at these pictures and listen to the music … what does it really seem to be about?” Cooder says. “It seems like it is about something small and something intimate and something quiet and something that I like.”
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Photo by Susan Titelman

Jon Cleary’s New Orleans Education

By Lynell George, Special to the Los Angeles Times
April 20, 2012
NEW ORLEANS — Pianist Jon Cleary has lived in this city all of his life: Even when he didn’t. Long before he saw it. And even when he was in forced exile from it.

A musician by trade, a storyteller by consequence, Cleary has deeply absorbed New Orleans’ pace and idiosyncrasies and, over time, its distinctive stories and sound. “My ambition,” he says, “has always been to come to New Orleans.”

Cleary, whose genre-bending style is steeped in early traditional New Orleans R&B, soul and funk, is not a household name but he’s recorded and toured with marquee artists such as Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt (with whom he worked for more than a decade). However, over the past three decades he’s become a keeper of the city’s traditions and its unique musical history, traveling the world, conveying New Orleans’ elusive character in song.

He will be doing a little New Orleans evangelizing in a rare appearance in Los Angeles with his trio the Philthy Phew, opening for soul-singing powerhouse Bettye LaVette at UCLA Live on Saturday. The show coincides with a new album, “Occapella,” featuring the music of one of his piano influences, Allen Toussaint, with cameos by Raitt andDr. John.

His sound is rooted deep in these old neighborhoods, deep in New Orleans’ DNA — a bright, rollicking tumble that blends the city’s sorrow and pleasure into one sound. Since he can remember, “That was the music that pressed all the buttons,” he says, sitting at a sidewalk table at the Sound Cafe amid the faded Creole cottages in the Upper 9th Ward. “So it’s what I pursued with a zeal.”

Born in London, raised in Kent, England, Cleary, 49, arrived in New Orleans at 17, for what was to be a vacation. “My gap year before I went off to university,” he says, but Cleary never left. “I got dropped right in the deep end,” he says, “I was like a detective on a mission.”

New Orleanians are particular about their story and who tells it. That role, Cleary knows, comes with expectations — even more for someone who didn’t spring from the ground here. But he’s found a place within the city’s long piano-playing lineage, mostly by putting himself in the right places to learn, often from the sources themselves.

With musicians here, the measure is simple, ” ‘Can he play or can he not?'” says Ben Sandmel, a New Orleans-based journalist and musician, and author of “Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans. “He has his own style. And in a city full of musicians, he’s very well respected.”

He’s a solid fixture of the city’s club circuit and a staple on the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival lineup often featuring him and his band — the Absolute Monster Gentlemen — known for its deep-funk sets that braid together strains of New Orleans music such as jazz, blues, boogie-woogie, R&B with the flow of the Caribbean and a full charge of ’70s funk.

“He’s the world’s best-kept secret,” says Raitt, who hired him after an L.A. recording session in 1999 impressed with his fluidity and depth. “He brought in all these styles, just pulled them out of the ether. But he deepened our forays into those various influences, because he speaks those [musical] languages very well. And what he’s learned, he learned by osmosis.”

It was New Orleans’ sound that first got deep under his skin. His uncle John, a musician and painter who traveled the world, would send notes from the road: “It wouldn’t be a normal letter,” Cleary recalls, “but a big piece of paper folded into little bits with illustrations — talking about Professor Longhair and Mardi Gras and Indians and the Zulu Parade.” Then came the records, 45s his uncle brought back in suitcase. “He’d point out the solos.” Cleary who’d picked up the guitar by then, wanted to know all of it.

When he landed in New Orleans in 1980 with $100 in his pocket, somewhere between hearing Earl King sing at the Maple Leaf Bar and dropping half his money in a rare-record store, he realized he wasn’t leaving.

His master class ended up being the Maple Leaf, where he picked up odd jobs and a rotation of players slinked through: “The blues pianist Roosevelt Sykes used to hang out … with his suit on and his big hat, tinkling away,” he recalls. “And James Booker happened to be living upstairs. So I’d be painting, and this piano music would be wafting [through] …” he recalls. “That’s when I became a piano player.”

New Orleans isn’t just a way of life, he quickly learned, it’s its own atmosphere. And in those many months coaxing out musicians’ stories, watching them play — he’d severely overstayed his welcome. Not with players, but with the government when his visa expired after several extensions. “I was unceremoniously sent back and told I couldn’t come back. It was like going from color to black and white.”

Eventually, the promise of work (and “thousands and thousands of dollars of lawyers’ fees”) returned him stateside. The time away only underscored his early intuition: “New Orleans music is like an accent. You can tell when it’s not quite right,” he explains. “To really convey it properly, you have to live here. You have to drink the water and eat red beans on Monday and know what it means. To know what it means to bounce down the road with your belly full of beer on your way to a second line [procession].”

It’s about being caught in the swirl of it — not just telling the story, but being part of it: “New Orleans music is really about three things: Good songs, good funk and a good time.”

photo credit: jesse hiatt via latimes.

“The Last Holiday”

Book review: ‘The Last Holiday: A Memoir’ by Gil Scott-Heron

The late performer — one of the most influential artists of his generation — casts some light on his life, times and music.

By Lynell George, Special to the Los Angeles Times

It’s impossible to pass through Gil Scott-Heron’s memoir “The Last Holiday” without “hearing” it in the musician’s own voice — the pitch and cadence of his unmistakable burnished baritone; the declarative positions and improvisational digressions that wander deep into a thicket.

Scott-Heron’s death at 62 last spring unleashed a wave of global remembrances from all manner of self-described inheritors — politicians, poets, musicians, teachers, writers — who spoke not just of influence but inspiration: a paradigm for not just thinking but speaking out and taking action. He was after something, both in content and form, that couldn’t always be simply categorized, and he preferred it that way. While boomers found a slogan in the refrain of his hit “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” the post-soul generation found a template in both his delivery and his reportage from the streets, dubbing him the “Godfather of Rap,” a title he’d once famously dodged with the response “Don’t blame me for that.”

In later years, the image of him as the forthright griot-activist with the nimbus of Afro reporting, in “speak-song,” on societal ills — poverty, alcoholism, big government, corruption, racism — became more complicated as Scott-Heron’s public profile transformed. News reports on cocaine possession and time served for a parole violation replaced interviews and album reviews. He became a cautionary tale, zero degrees of separation from the ripped-from-the-headlines feel of his own compositions. It was heartbreaking for anyone who remembered the fire and force of his declarations, the proud profile he worked mightily to build.

Consequently, this posthumous recounting allows a chance to cast light on some corners of his thinking — particularly when it comes to politics and writing and the place that they intersect in his music. It’s a document he says he hoped “is a chance to share some things with people,” particularly his three children.

“The Last Holiday” is as much about his life as it is about context, the theater of late 20th century America — from Jim Crow to the Reagan ’80s and from Beale Street to 57th Street. The narrative is not, however, a rise-and-fall retelling of Scott-Heron’s life and career. It doesn’t connect all the dots. It moves off-the-beat, at its own speed. It lingers on certain life chapters he preferred to recall (playing piano for his grandmother’s sewing circle in Tennessee, getting lost in books, taking a leave from school to work on his first novel, “The Vulture,” meeting his long-time collaborator Brian Jackson at Lincoln University). The rush of checking out the Last Poets. He slides over the problematic others (the final years and their ravages). Memory, he acknowledges, is tricky: “The raw feelings, like shock or sharp pain, or fear, suddenly grabbing your heart, are the closest to the top, easiest to reach. They return to me unbidden at times.”

This approach to revelation lends the book an episodic quality, like oral storytelling does. It winds around, it repeats itself. It’s as vivid as it is lyrically elliptical: “Words have been important to me for as long as I can remember. Their sound, their construction, their origins.”

While “The Last Holiday” allows the reader in on Scott-Heron’s process — his obsession with language, reading and writing, his game-changing heroes (among them: Langston Hughes, Thurgood Marshall, John Coltrane) — tying that to the “holiday” that the title references is a tremendous leap. In the prologue, Scott-Heron explains that the book’s “central focus” is his friend Stevie Wonder’s campaign to make the Rev.Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. And though the last quarter of the book is by and large dedicated to his time working with Wonder, that story may have been the impetus, but it’s not the engine.

“The Last Holiday” unrolls the blueprints. Pieces of a man come together; a foundation is laid down. Scott-Heron was part of the first wave of students to integrate the formerly all-white public junior high school in Jackson, Tenn. He had been deeply influenced by the long season of violence — lynchings, beatings, assassinations — that preceded and followed Freedom Summer in 1964. By the time he’d returned to New York to live with his mother, the rituals and stories of the South were deeply rooted in him.

“There were regular gatherings on the front porch…. It could include any number of people from the neighborhood…. And no matter where the conversations started, they would end up speaking on race. What was happening here and there. What they had read in the papers. What information had come through from the men and women who worked on the trains and knew what was going on from Miami to Chicago….”

By the time Scott-Heron stepped into a recording studio in the late ’60s-early ’70s, he was in a sense mirroring that ritual — trading stories, identifying problems, casting about for solutions. He set those words to moods. “I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation and the poetry came from the music. We made the poems into songs,” he writes, “and we wanted the music to sound like words.” Bound within it all, they were setting forth powerful ideas.

Journalists would probe: “How do you see yourself? … [J]azz or poet or singer or …” “I started looking for them to ask, ‘vegetable or mineral?'” He was reaching for something new beyond easy description or category, which in many ways, was a metaphor: “I felt people who wrote about me and Brian should have looked at all we did. It was pretty obvious that there was an entire Black experience that didn’t relate only to protest. We dealt with all the streets that went through black America,” he writes. When he’d speak to the audience after his shows, he learned, “the songs that people wanted to talk about were … more personal than political, more private than public, more of an emotion than an issue.”

Just as Scott-Heron was neither “vegetable” nor “mineral,” it’s fitting perhaps that “The Last Holiday” eludes a standard definition. Nor will it explain the “whys” of the latter years, but it is true to the man who shrugged off the limits of labels. Though, nearing the conclusion of the book, there are hints of darkness, his later interior struggle, he decided that this was the story he wanted to tell, one that is less official accounting than one long, open-hearted solo.

George is a Los Angeles-based journalist and an assistant professor of English and journalism at Loyola Marymount University.

Story here:

Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times

“Replay”

Producer David Axelrod’s* essential ’60s sounds are charting again in hip-hop hits

By Lynell George, Times Staff Writer

DAVID Axelrod doesn’t do encores, as a rule. That’s a boldfaced and
underscored imperative. There are other rules–“codes in life”–in
his hip pocket that he’ll pull out when the time is right: Don’t
welsh on a bet. Can’t fink–ever. Always take the offensive. Those
are also imperatives. But the no encores rule doesn’t preclude a
“second set,” in jazz parlance–when the personnel are warmed up,
when things are getting good, when the magic can really happen.

Back in the day, as a producer and arranger at Capitol Records,
Axelrod was a hit machine, the brains and imagination behind a
succession of chart climbers by Cannonball Adderley and Lou Rawls,
among others. Though he created the first black music division at a
major record label, Axelrod could swing effortlessly from one genre,
style or setting to another, and was known as much for his
versatility as his idiosyncratic work with the Electric Prunes, David
McCallum and South African vocalist Letta Mbulu, as well as his own
prescient, genre-defying solo projects, “Songs of Innocence,” “Songs
of Experience” and “Earth Rot.” He was one of the first artists to
fuse elements of jazz, rock and R&B, evoking spacious expanses with
swampy backbeat, dustings of strings, incantatory break beats. And as
fast as he ascended, he vanished.

But his sonic imprint didn’t. Forty years later, bars of sorrowful
brass, a charging drum break, a lacy keyboard motif here, a slinky
bass line there–began to surface in samples like aural ghosts,
slipped into bridges of songs, stutter-stepped around choruses of rap
and hip-hop hits. What had been ahead of its time, outside or
completely uncategorizable was no longer.

Suddenly–again–Axelrod was juggling interviews with journalists
around the globe, hanging out in luxe watering holes, doling out
feedback to young musicians as if he were still in the booth at
Capitol, passing on a pressing’s back story to “diggers” trying to
amass his entire catalog, much of it decades out of print. His
name–paired with those of DJ Shadow, Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, Snoop
Dogg and Madlib, and pared down to the appropriately sharp
“Axe”–became a passkey among a new generation of musical omnivores
with an ear for beats and fills and space, who listened as a producer
might–to the bones, the structure, to what makes it stand up
straight, what makes it move.

For many, upon first listen, it was head-expanding. “It was kind
of jazzy and psychedelic all in one,” says Madlib. “Then there’s that
funky, hard bass and drum–Carol Kaye and Earl Palmer. It was like
world street music. I think it was so out there because, well, he was
probably so out there.”

“With David you can love Sun Ra and James Brown and Stockhausen
too,” says Eothen “Egon” Alapatt, general manager of Stones Throw
Records, who produced “The Edge: *David Axelrod* at Capitol Records
1966 to 1970.” “He’s the one rogue guy whose picture isn’t on the
wall.”

Though it wasn’t the first, a sample from a 1966 Axelrod cut, “The
Edge,” from “David McCallum–Music: A Bit More of Me,” was dropped
into Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode,” which became a mega-hit in 1999,
giving Axelrod’s dwindling bank account a big boost and provoking a
change of heart. After a lifetime of giving musicians work, he’d seen
sampling as stealing jobs. “And it is!” he says. “But I can’t be
hypocritical about it. I mean, come on. I thought the Lauryn Hill
thing was cool, but then came Dre and that made Lauryn Hill look like
she wasn’t even selling, which of course is ridiculous. I didn’t give
the money away, I didn’t give it back,” he admits, palms up. “My man,
Dre!”

The momentum built, much like one of Axelrod’s own big, sweeping,
what’s-around-that-blind-corner soundscapes. An old acetate was
found; new compositions were written, CDs released–reissues,
compilations and new work. All of it culminating in a concert in
London in 2004 (his first live performance in 25 years) and, on June
18, a celebratory screening in his hometown, Los Angeles, of a film
documenting that concert at the Royal Festival Hall. In an evening of
discussion, drinks and, of course, DJs spinning a career-spanning mix
of his work in the courtyard of the Egyptian Theatre, Axelrod, at 75,
will finally be properly feted.

Back in the golden era–of digging, that is–DJs and beat heads
were searching for very particular sounds. “When we were first
digging we were looking for drums with good hits with air around
them, and strings,” says B+ (Brian Cross), an L.A.-based
photographer/filmmaker/DJ who first discovered Axelrod while
eyeballing records at a Goodwill in Culver City. There he came upon a
copy of “Songs of Innocence” (1968). This was the early- to mid-’90s,
the days of “raw digging,” before EBay and other forms of Internet
assist. “Somehow I knew that name, Axelrod.”

The music was as enigmatic as the man himself. “There was always a
dissonant edge that set it apart. That and extraordinary dynamics,”
says B+. “The strings. This big sound. It was like somehow he was
summoning the future, that you can project this environment, this
moment into the future.” It’s a sense of spaciousness,
borderlessness, that feels like a now-gone Los Angeles.

*David Axelrod* grew up in the Los Angeles of the ’30s and ’40s,
when jazz was the popular music–on the radio, in the clubs, in the
backspace of daily life. Fine music bloomed everywhere just for the
picking. He conjures it: Jack’s Basket, the Chicken Shack, the Turban
Room (“People always talk about the Club Alabam, but this room was
directly below. Small. Intimate.”), the Renaissance Room, the Haig,
Shelley’s Manhole; the “beautiful guys” who lived in them, such as
Buddy Collette, Harold Land, Red Callendar, Gerald Wiggins; the
greats who passed through, such as Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, Carl
Perkins, John Coltrane. After some names he knocks wood. “The dead
ones. That used to drive Cannonball crazy!” He’s superstitious–about
death, about the mysteries of creative process, or anything close to
the heart, it seems. Also, he warns, “I digress a lot.” But the side
trips are the main road, his story–the hot rods, the drugs du jour,
the hip vernacular salted in for verisimilitude.

We sit in the quiet dimness of his North Hollywood apartment on an
intensely warm day in May, the blinds closed against the worst of the
sun. A huge wall-unit blasts refrigerated air, tousles the wavy mane
of white hair that lends him the affect of both up-all-night
scientist and rakish conductor–which is close to the inner truth.
This apartment, downstairs from the one he shares with his wife, subs
as a studio. The space is simple, spartan, giving only grudging clues
of a grand and circuitous past. There is a keyboard; a pad of score
paper and a stopwatch on a drafting table. Next to that, a rack of
LPs on display: Sun Ra, Harold Land, Cannonball Adderley, his own
solo work, a boxed set of Schoenberg. (“I always thought the ideal
record store would have the whole thing alphabetical instead of
broken down into what kind of music it is,” he says. “Why is that
necessary? Will you tell me?”) Stacked on low tables are a rhyming
dictionary, the collected poems of William Blake.

Axelrod can be flinty, even truculent–then smooth it all with
charm, chased with a bawdy story told in a late-night DJ’s voice. His
conversational style tends to lead with a disarming salvo (“What high
school did you go to? That’s no real school! I went to Dorsey! That’s
a real school.”) that puts you just off balance, so he has control of
things, can pace them the way he likes.

He’s a former boxer, but most likely his technique comes from
years of negotiating shifting territory. Axelrod’s family lived on
30th Street just a few blocks from Crenshaw Boulevard–what is now
considered South L.A. but back then was known as the Westside–in a
modest, middle-class mixed neighborhood in transition. That curve of
Crenshaw as it veers south was one of Axelrod’s favorite streets.
“Some nights there would be jazz and some nights there would be
rhythm and blues–at the same room. People are always talking about
Chicago, but we had that right here,” he says. “And there was this
place nearby, on 28th and Crenshaw, on the east side of Crenshaw. I
used to play drums there with Gerald Wiggins.” More to the point, “I
was Wig’s chauffeur, his bodyguard, his bottle-getter. You name it.”
It was just one of his ways into the fold. “I mean, it was crazy. He
was Wig, and whatever he wanted done, we did. I punched out a couple
of dudes for him!”

Axelrod really wanted to be a writer–had decided so at 13. This
music thing, as a vocation, hit him much later. “I’m an omnivorous
reader and I got everything from reading, and that’s how I learned
music too. From books. Walter Piston’s book on basic harmony.” He
learned scales from Wiggins, a pianist, and was taught to sight-read
at Mt. Vernon Junior High and later at Dorsey–until he dropped out.
“I just didn’t give a damn. Gerald taught me how to read in time, to
tempo. I played with him once in a while. He was getting paid for a
duo, and he’d keep the money,” Axelrod remembers. “But it was cool
because I was getting all the liquor I wanted to drink and I always
walked out with chicks. Always. The strangest thing is drummers
always get the chicks. It’s something visceral. Even if they can’t
play.”

There were card games at Wiggins’ place, a de facto hangout. Or
maybe an impromptu cutting session at Red Callendar’s house pitting
Carl Perkins and Oscar Peterson against the great Art Tatum. “Tatum
went over to the piano and played ‘Little Man You’ve Had a Busy Day.’
[Expletive!] Ran that thing out to dry. Oscar Peterson is sitting
there looking like, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ It was just
insane. It was so hip. See, those kinds of things were just going on.
It was just a great way to grow up. I learned so much.”

It makes every bit of sense that Axelrod would run the streets and
interconnected soundscapes of a city as broad and self-defined as Los
Angeles–a sound smear of jazz and rhythm and blues, psychedelia and
rock ‘n’ roll, tinges of Latin and new music.

“Dave knows no color,” says his friend, producer and arranger H.B.
Barnum, who just happened upon Axelrod one night in Leimert Park only
minutes after Axelrod had been stabbed in the stomach, jumped by a
carload of cruising Mexicans from the Eastside. “Who knows why he was
there? Probably he was going to hear some music, probably out having
a smoke. Then all of a sudden there’s a fight.” But Barnum got him to
the hospital. They talked sports–not music–on the way back,
exchanged numbers. It was the beginning of a prolific working
relationship. “He had such a vast knowledge of jazz,” Barnum says.
“Knew the history. Knew how to get in touch with people. He was like
a history book walking. Gerald Wiggins was like the godfather, and
Dave would get this daily interaction–Hampton Hawes, Monk, Tatum,
Sweets–all the legends sitting around playing pinochle.”

“Not everyone could hang with Wig,” says saxophonist, clarinetist
and flutist Buddy Collette, “but he loved the way Wig played. That
was his inspiration. And Dave was always promoting stuff, putting
together record dates, wanting to put on a show, getting guys work.
He could get people excited. Dave could make people believe him. His
face and his smile: It was like a work of art the way he would do it.
If he’d ask for something, he’d lean in, move his shoulders. You had
to go with him.”

It was a journey in form as well. Much later, when Axelrod started
writing, musicians took leaps of faith. “It seemed like he liked
everything. That was before all that labeling,” says Collette. “He
had a basic idea and a lot of creativity. It was always a little
unusual and different. It had its own feeling. Since he didn’t have
the whole schooling approach, if he had an idea he got it down the
best way he could, just figured it had to work this way.”

And it was seldom music of the cultural moment, says Barnum. “He
studies and listens. He’s remembering and experiencing, and he might
be crossing Muddy Waters with Stravinsky. The trick is to convey that
to me or the engineer–with everybody watching.”

For all of the influences, why did jazz and rhythm and blues take
hold of him the way they did? “Why? I could never explain it,” says
Axelrod, edging toward testy. “And I don’t want to. And when I hear
people do, I know they’re lying. Do you think I know what I’m doing
here?” He gestures toward the keyboard, the score paper. “What I mean
by that is when it’s happening I don’t know why, which is why I get
nervous before I hear it. I still feel like throwing up before record
dates. The thing is that other people go back through [their work]. I
never do. When I finish this score page, I set it here and start on
the next score page,” he says, making an imaginary stack that grows
and grows, “until it’s over. I write ‘Finis!’ then pack it up and
call the copyist. I have to trust that it’s going to be right. And
guess what”–he pauses, knocks wood–“it usually is.”

His first producing job was a traditional jazz date, an album he
can’t recall, for Motif Records. “There was a studio called Audio
Arts, I think on Melrose, and a guy named George Fields, who was a
brilliant harmonica player who could play everything from jazz to
Bach, he was the engineer as well and he owned it. He started
teaching me about the [mixing] board. And we had something in
common–we liked reefer.”

Axelrod began to pick up tricks, ins-and-outs, producing numerous
jazz albums. Moving through clubs and record dates, he freelanced
with bluesman Jimmy Witherspoon and worked with exotica vibraphonist
Arthur Lyman (on “Taboo Vol. 2”) at Hi Fi Records and, most notably,
Harold Land on the seminal “The Fox” for Hi Fi Jazz–which put the
lie to the term “West Coast Cool.” But, Axelrod says, “I still,
always I had this thought that I was going to become an author.” Then
one day he “just wandered over to Harry Harrington’s house, this
6-foot-6 black dude,” a friend of Wig’s, of course. “It was 1960, I
guess, I think I’d left Hi Fi Records because nothing was going on
there. I just split. So we lit a reefer and I laid down on his couch
and he said, ‘I’m going to play something for you.’ And what he put
on was ‘Birth of the Cool,’ and my brain turned to mush. I made him
play that thing three times–and then I got up and said, ‘I’m going.’
He says, ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going to Wallach’s.’ The biggest
music store in the city. And I went over there and bought the record.
That record changed my life. I said: ‘This is what I gotta do.'”

Axelrod’s imprint–Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!,” Lou Rawls’
“Love Is a Hurtin’ Thing” and other LPs and singles–was an essential
part of the backspace of the day, after-the-fireworks music or a
dimmer-switch for a quiet Thursday night. This was conversational
rhythm and blues/soul music/soul jazz, full of sweetness and lust and
longing, love and hope. And those records–those songs–were
everywhere.

Oh yes they were, remembers Axelrod. “[Capitol distribution
executive] Stan Gortikov leaned into my office one day at Capitol and
said, ‘You have a smash hit record.’ And I go, ‘What’s that?’ He
went, ‘Lou Rawls’ “Live!” ‘ He said, ‘We got an order from Chicago
and they want 120,000,’ and at that time no one was thinking in terms
of platinum, which you have to do today. It was just crazy. It was
like one of those great streaks of our time.”

When Axelrod arrived at Capitol in 1964 it was like hitting the
bull’s-eye. “That’s where I was aiming at. It was the only major out
here,” he says. The studio was his laboratory–and what he wanted
would always lean just left of convention. “See, I love the bass. The
first I usually put down on the score pad is the bass line. Then I
work from there,” he explains. “I just started changing the accents
during the rhythms when I started listening to Schoenberg and
Stravinsky. Especially Igor! Igor really messed with rhythm. ‘The
Rite of Spring’ turned everybody around.”

“I think he was one of the last of the creative people taking real
chances,” says Collette. “He might have been a little ahead of his
time, doing what he was doing right out of his head. Things were
happening right on the spot because that’s the way he did it. And
play it back 20, 30 years later, listen to it again a few more
times–the magic is still there because you hear different things
later.”

“His writing was very, very strange and abstract. So you had to
really concentrate,” says drummer Earl Palmer. “There were these
strange chords, and he’d put them in what seemed to be strange
places, until you heard them.”

Axelrod could afford to step out some creatively–Adderley was
hitting big, and eventually, he says, “everything Lou was doing was
crossing over. [Artist & Repertoire Vice President] Voyle Gilmore
calls me and says, ‘Let’s have lunch,’ so we go down to the Record
Room at the Brown Derby. I hate to discuss business and eat, I tell
him, ‘So let’s do it right now.’ So Gilmore says, ‘I’ll give you–‘
Then he mentioned a figure that was so insane to me, so wacky to me
that I couldn’t believe making this kind of money. And I just looked
at him. He took that for a no. Then he upped it. Then he threw in a
car. ‘Any car you want!'”

There was a Lincoln. And later he bought a ’65 Mustang. “I’d get
in drag races on Van Nuys Boulevard. I never lost a race. Then I sold
it. Got tired of it. That toy went out the window. That’s what kept
happening. I just had so much money. It was absurd. And what do you
do with it? You spend it! I didn’t pay attention to it. It was just
something to have. That was the end of that [expletive]. Very
strange. But it was fun.”

Often there isn’t one particular thread that makes the tapestry
unravel. After Alan Livingston, Capitol’s president, left, Axelrod
parted ways with Capitol to produce his own projects. The business
was becoming less about the music and more about the bottom line. Not
long after, he lost a son, Scott, then his ace, Cannonball, to a
stroke, and then his wife, Terry, was in a near-fatal car accident.
The hits just kept coming: “That was a terrible period of time. We
don’t want to talk about that.” Knock-knock.

When B+ got his copy of “Songs of Innocence” home, he kicked back
for a listen. “I liked that it wasn’t jazz or soundtrack–that it
didn’t quite fit into a category. It sounded like what Portishead or
Shadow were trying to do.”

He started digging for more. As were others–this Axelrod thing
became proprietary, gathered steam. “People were like, ‘Hey, how’d
you find out about him?'” says B+.

The royalty checks started to wend their way to Axelrod, who by
now had moved out of his trophy home in Encino–first to a “tar
shack” in Tarzana, where he nursed Terry back to health, and later to
this complex in North Hollywood, which H.B. Barnum paid first and
last and security on, saving his life again. “They don’t make ’em
better than H.,” Axelrod says. “He’s my brother.”

This is where B+ first met him on an assignment for the British
style magazine Dazed & Confused, photographing him for an issue on
hip-hop’s “trendsetters.” Axelrod had been nominated by James
Lavelle, founder of the Mo’ Wax label, which would later release
“*David Axelrod*” (2001), featuring tracks from a “lost” project
recorded in 1967.

When the acetate of those sketches surfaced, B+ was one of the
first people Axelrod called. “It was about the heaviest record you
could find,” B+ says. “It was like finding an unfinished piece of art
and it was at the moment when his work was most sampled. In terms of
digging, the idea is to find the one most super-obscure thing that
didn’t get out. So this was super, super-heavy holy grail.” It’s what
set everything in motion–the Mo’ Wax album, the London performance
and, now, the DVD release of the concert film “*David Axelrod* Live.”

The checks are still arriving, as well as journalists and DJs and
musicians with requests and questions. And when they ask him about
the present and past, specifics about time and place, Axelrod
bristles. “When you see dates, just put a question mark next to them.
Dates, times when something happened or occurred, they’ve become
unimportant,” he says, leaning in, using his shoulder. “Why are they
important? I don’t care. I’m here now.”

*