This month’s JAZZ meets POETRY event is a Tribute to Gil Scott-Heron, and will be held at The Nash (110 E Roosevelt St, Phoenix, Arizona 85004) on April 26 from 7:00-10:00 pm.
JAZZ meets POETRY is a new series at The Nash for 2017-2018 that places poets and jazz musicians center stage to make art that is expressive, interactive and captivating.
Part theatre part concert, this performance tributes Gil Scott-Heron — considered to be “one of the most important progenitors of rap music” (AllMusic’s John Bush) — with original poetry, spoken word and musical accompaniment provided by The Nash Music by The Geibral Elisha Movement.
SPECIAL GUEST: Brooklyn, NY-based artist Tai Allen, who released a book and soundtrack project — No Jewels — in 2017. In 2010, his album “Easy Readin’” was awarded Album of the Year by the National Poetry Awards. He is a member of the National Black Writers Conference Steering Committee and has also served as the Conference’s Poetry Cafe host. Allen also is creative director for Arts+Crafts, where he curates an annual Tap+Cork Brooklyn Beer & Wine Fest, and creates performance opportunities for emerging artists, djs and poets.
Advance tickets: $15, $8 Students (25 & under with ID). At the door: $20, $10 Students (25 & under with ID).
The Langston Hughes Project presents Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz, a multimedia performance embodying poet Langston Hughes’s jazz poem suite. The performance will take place on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. in the Agave Community Room at Chandler-Gilbert Community College’s Pecos Campus (2626 East Pecos Road Chandler Az 85225.)
The twelve part epic poem is a homage in verse and music to the African American struggle for artistic and social freedom in the 1960’s.
Experience the poem through spoken word with Dr. Ron McCurdy, accompanied by live music from the Ron McCurdy Quartet with images and video from the Harlem Renaissance.
This event is free and open to the public, however there is limited seating. For more information visit Ron McCurdy’s website.
This event is co-sponsored by Chandler-Gilbert Community College and Arizona State University.
About a month ago, before any of the awards were given out, my wife and I went with our 14 year old son to see Whiplash, one of the Best Picture nominees for 2014. We went partly because the movie was getting critical praise, but mostly because our son, who is strongly considering a career in music, really wanted to see it. After watching the movie I found it unusually hard to characterize my feelings about it. Was it a “great movie,” as some of my writing students were emphatically declaring the other day? Well, yes, I guess it does rank as that. Certainly it is well-filmed and well-acted—J. K. Simmons without question deserved the Oscar he won for his performance as Terrence Fletcher, the insanely aggressive teacher—and I know it affected me more than any other movie I’ve seen in recent memory. In fact, Whiplash absolutely hit me in the gut. But here’s the thing: The effect it had on my gut is that it made me sick.
I found the movie very hard to watch even if it is brilliantly put together, and even if the young protagonist, Andrew Neiman, is a very sympathetic character. But let me clarify, it wasn’t hard to watch because of the way the Fletcher psychologically and even physically abuses Andrew. As a teacher of creatively ambitious students, I despise and reject every single teaching “method”–if one can call them that–that Fletcher espouses. But it’s not his methods that made me sick. What made me sick is that the movie endorses them. Early on, sensing where it was going, I turned to my wife and whispered something to the effect of “I hope they’re not saying this is okay.” I watched on, waiting and hoping for the “not okay” message that never came. No, what came was the exact opposite, which is why to my students’ announcement that Whiplash is a “great movie” I finally replied: “It may be a great movie, but it’s not a good one.” Because a good movie does not make you leave the theatre revolted and heartsick, with disgusting and dangerous notions echoing through your brain.
For those who haven’t seen Whiplash and don’t intend to, here’s a quick summary. Feel free to skip ahead if you already know the movie. Andrew Neiman, a talented, hard-working, and, most of all, ambitious young jazz drummer enters the prestigious Schaffer Music Academy in New York. Andrew is soon noticed by Fletcher, who promotes him to the “A team,” so to speak; that is, Fletcher’s orchestra. Fletcher’s teaching methods amount to psychological torture and physical demands that border on the lunatic. He literally makes Andrew bleed, but even worse are the constant mind games he plays, as he pits students against each other, lies to them, and consciously undervalues them. His great mantra is that Charlie Parker only became Bird because somebody threw a cymbal at his head. It’s a long story, but Andrew is finally cut from Fletcher’s orchestra and expelled from the school—but not because he isn’t a good player. He reluctantly agrees to participate (on an anonymous basis) in a lawsuit against Fletcher, the result being that Fletcher is fired from Schaffer.
Later, Andrew discovers that Fletcher is playing in a neighborhood jazz bar, and he stops in to listen. Fletcher sees Andrew afterwards and they have a come-to-Jesus meeting in which Andrew seems to abandon all his former reservations about the teacher. Fletcher, in turn, asks Andrew to play drums in an orchestra he has put together for a festival gig at Carnegie Hall. It’s Andrew’s big chance to return, and to be noticed—in a big way! But as it turns out, the request is a set-up. Fletcher—who, it turns out, knew all along that it was Andrew who brought the lawsuit against him—doesn’t inform Andrew about the new song he intends to open the first set with, and Fletcher doesn’t provide him with the sheet music. Andrew tries to fake it but fails miserably. It looks like it’s all over for him. He walks off stage humiliated. But then, rather than quit, he walks back on stage and starts drumming out the opening of “Caravan,” forcing the orchestra and Fletcher to follow along, as if this is planned. Long story short, Andrew gives the drumming performance of his life, including a ridiculously elongated solo. At the very end of the movie, he and Fletcher smile at each other, as if this level of accomplishment is what the teacher had wanted all along, planned for all along, and finally got.
Some disagree about the meaning of that last crucial scene, but it seems pretty clear to me that no matter what Fletcher really intended to have happened, he comes out smelling like a rose. Either his former student, the one who brought a lawsuit against him, would leave thoroughly humiliated by the teacher’s crafty if evil power play—proving that you never mess with the man—or the former student would use the humiliation to come back at him and prove to be Fletcher’s greatest accomplishment as a teacher. Fletcher would have found and formed the next Bird, so to speak. (I know, I know. Bird was not a drummer.) Either way, Fletcher wins. He earns respect. And that’s what really bothers me about the movie. Not only does it not do away with Terrence Fletcher, it winds up endorsing his many misguided and clichéd notions about the art of teaching.
As others commenting on this movie have made clear, there’s no way anyone as openly abusive as Fletcher would be allowed to teach in the first place. You won’t find teachers like him in music schools if only for the fact that the students at those schools are paying ungodly amounts to go there—and not for the sake of being abused. But that’s really beside the point for me. Whether a Terrence Fletcher actually exists is immaterial. What matters is that teachers like him exist in the public’s imagination, and I fear—in fact, I know—that they are romanticized to the point that bad teaching practices become operative cultural myths.
What myths and practices am I talking about? First, the idea, openly embraced by Fletcher, that everything he does as a teacher is for the sake of that one gifted student. He breezily dismisses any and all concern for the rest of his charges. Problem is, all of his students pay tuition. So a teacher who really is one tries to educate them all. It’s called teaching. You try to help all of them, understanding that of course in the end they will each reach different levels of achievement. Because that’s your job. Second, how can Terrence Fletcher, before he decides which particular student should be the focus of his psychopathic attentions, be so sure which student is the one and which isn’t? I had a teacher in grad school who claimed he could tell if you were a poet or not after reading only three lines. Three lines? This is so stupid a claim (and I knew it was stupid then) I don’t even know where to begin. Human beings develop at remarkably different rates. Some shine out loud when they are very young; some shine only a little but shine more and more the older they get. Some shine brightly, but then are too distracted or too lazy or too unfortunate to ever shine any better. Some shine bright for a minute and then burn out. Some shine brightly and only get brighter as they age (e.g., W.B. Yeats). No one can or should make absolute statements about any person’s talent based on one point in that person’s working career. And besides, poems are as different as they come. I don’t mean from poet to poet but within the work of a single poet, even during the same period of her writing life. Three lines of one poem is so paltry a sample of a person’s work it’s laughable. To claim you can judge a poet after three lines—or a musician after three seconds (as Fletcher does repeatedly in the movie)—is to prove oneself ignorant of both human nature and the arts.
An even bigger problem with the myth is that even for the gifted student, Fletcher’s methods are not only not productive; they are counterproductive. No one realizes his inner potential by being ridiculed and humiliated and insulted. That is one of the most toxic, and most enduring, misconceptions of the teaching profession. What happens when someone is ridiculed and insulted is that they are driven away. They are shut down. They become afraid. No one who is afraid ever makes great art. No one who is afraid ever actualizes anything. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not of the school that says you should only praise students. I don’t think any student of mine has ever written something that could not be improved and that I haven’t said as much to them. But at the same time, constructive criticism can and should be delivered without insulting and dismissing the writer of the words. Without claiming that they shouldn’t even try. That’s what you should never do. Because you don’t have the right to. And because there are simply too many cases where teachers who say such things wind up being wrong and looking foolish.
I’m not sure if it’s widely understood just how much of a myth the myth of the bastard teacher is. Far from guaranteeing that the great artists come, there’s no telling how many great artists have been stymied and blunted by the arrogant slash-and-burn school of instruction. Unfortunately, there are people in the world—like the writers of Whiplash—who believe that intimidation, maligning, and mind games really do work as teaching tools. In fact, I’m willing to bet that in the general population there are a higher percentage who believe that this is how “real” artists are shaped than who know better. I can swear to you that there are many people in the world who believe that a teacher of writing should just tell some of her students to give up. (Just ask my wife how many of her Teaching Creative Writing students have asked her exactly when they are supposed to tell a young student this. The ironic thing is that these people are almost never good writers themselves.) The charismatic teacher who dominates his room like an old school general may be cinematic, but he’s really of no use to anyone or anything except his own ego. Actual teachers know that there is no one-note system guaranteed to reach all your students or even all your best students. Every single student learns a little differently and that makes broadly effective teaching an amazingly complex and multi-dimensional endeavor, one that requires knowledge and smarts and confidence, but even more intuition and mind-reading, acute sensitivity and the ability on rare occasions to turn off that sensitivity; good humor, an infinite amount of patience, as well as the ability to become impatient once in a while. See, it really is a ridiculously complicated task. But that’s no fun for screenwriters. You can’t make an unforgettable and cinematic a**hole out of complication, intuition, and patience.
But you can get J.K. Simmons an Oscar. And you can get a lot of college students talking.
[Note: This is an updated version of a post that originally appeared on Vanderslice’s own blog Payperazzi.]
Being both a writer and an artist, I often get the question of how can you switch from one medium to the other? To be honest, I don’t consider that I’m switching. It’s all in your head (or mine, I suppose). There are so many elements that cross over from one medium to the other—metaphor, imagery, form, symbolism, etc. that I don’t think I need to belabor that point. And of course there are very narrative artists such as Magritte or Joseph Cornell. And there are many other artists who are also writers or actors or musicians (William Blake, Terry Allen, Tony Bennett, Patti Smith, to name a motley few). And when I lived in New York, it seemed that everyone was writing a screen play, sculpting and playing in a band or photographing, juggling and tap dancing or putting together dance, jazz, projected painting performances or some variation of any of the above. Doesn’t all creativity spring from the same source?
I suspect that I’m sounding a bit defensive, and I guess I am. I’ve sometimes felt the need to justify being a photographer who prints and hand colors her photos, a painter who works in almost every medium (I started to say except printmaking, and then I remembered that I did those mono-prints once) and a writer of both fiction and poetry. “When do you sleep?” I have translated in my own head into “What kind of freak are you?” or “Maybe you should just do one thing…” (“really well”, my ego defense system adds). And then there’s the “prolific” problem—the most commonly used adjective bounced around my studio by new visitors. I have grown to dislike the word, which I associate with weeds. And I hear myself sounding defensive when I answer that the studio contains years of shows with, yes, unsold works still lurking about, and let’s say you put up a show of thirty pieces and you sell two, and you have at least one show a year, well…you do the math. And of course there’s other work that you do that doesn’t go into a show. Other times I just say, “Yes, I’m productive” (a “p” word I can live with).
But I started out to write about the crossover, which I actually wasn’t that aware of until I had to do a presentation for the writing class of a colleague. I got together slides and poems and suddenly realized almost all of my poems and art pieces had some element that reverberated from one medium to the other. For example, I found paintings and photos with eggs and then discovered any number of poems also hatching eggs right and left. Which came first the painting or the egg, or the poem?
One of my most fun and challenging experiences involved a collaboration with a sound artist titled “Out of the Darkness”, inspired by Roethke’s poem of the same name, projecting double exposed slides of scraps of my paintings and other abstract images with a one to twenty second dissolve, triggered by a tape of new music composed on a (at the time) very sophisticated synthesizer. Part of the fun was setting small plastic figures on fire and photographing them and going on excursions to record the traffic or the wind. The final effect was very much like a film, with images overlapping and dissolving into each other at different speeds.
Maybe I should have gone into film, which combines all the elements: imagery, narrative, sound, metaphor, color. Instead, I’m on the board of Filmworks a local group that brings alternative, independent and foreign films to Fresno. Last year, as a fundraiser for our organization I dreamed up the idea of combining jazz (another love) and poetry and invited a local jazz saxophone artist, Ben Boone as part of a quartet to collaborate with Phil Levine and Peter Everwine. I called it THE JAZZ OF POETRY, THE POETRY OF JAZZ. Herding all the people and elements involved together was harder than herding cats, (even cool ones) but it all evolved as probably the best jazz or poetry does in a very casual, spontaneous, and improvisational way and was a huge success. In fact, Ben and Phil have gone on to other jazz/poetry collaborations.
I confess that sometimes when I’m dry in one medium, I just turn to another which maybe says more about my own obsessive/compulsive tendencies than I’d like. But I do think that dipping into another medium can really open up all kinds of possibilities for your primary medium. If you’re a poet, take up piano or painting or puppetry, not necessarily to start a new career, but to stir up the creative waters. Nothing is more exciting or scary or (scary exciting) than the new blank document. When will you find time to do all this? When will you sleep? I don’t know, but when you do, you might have some wild and crazy dreams.
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