Monthly Archives: February 2015

Want some Satchmo? Take five

800px-Louis_Armstrong_restored1Appearing on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1968, Louis Armstrong was asked to pick the eight tracks he’d take as a castaway.

Satchmo, a man who could never be accused of not having a great welcome for himself, chose five of his own recordings.

And, lest he tire of hearing himself on record, Armstrong picked as his island luxury his trumpet. When it came to reading material he opted to bring the book closest to his heart…his autobiography.

Well, as the himself said: “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them”.

As for me, I’m told. In the unlikely event that I ever shuffle onto Desert Island Discs Pops will make my list  – one of the few dead-cert tracks, in fact.

But what if I emulated him and picked my five favourite Louis recordings?

Well, Kirsty, I couldn’t resist.

1. Basin Street Blues

One of the great performances from jazz’s own Rosetta Stone, Armstrong’s Hot Five recording from 1928 takes a Dixieland standard and adds scat singing and then, two minutes in, that solo.

2. Stompin’ At The Savoy

No, not the London hotel. Instead it’s a celebration of the New York ballroom that Langston Hughes called “Harlem’s heartbeat”, and where Ella herself once fronted the house band.

3. West End Blues

From the top, the most famous solo in jazz. As for the rest of the performance, Billie Holiday put it best: “Sometimes the record would make me so sad, I’d cry up a storm…other times the same damn record would make me so happy.”

4.  St Louis Blues

WC Handy‘s groundbreaking mix of ragtime and blues, with a little tango thrown in, topped off with a Satchmo solo.

5. Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

What else could a son of Storyville, who spent most of his life far from the French Quarter, sing?

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On turning 37

John Updike Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

John Updike
Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

After a decade’s work Gertrude Stein completed The Making of Americans, comparing the finished novel to Ulysses. It went unpublished, in any form, for 13 years.

While working as the head chef at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo Georges Auguste Escoffier met Cesar Ritz. The pair later formed a business partnership which commercialised gastronomy for the ordinary man – and led to the birth of the modern restaurant.

John Updike published his first collection of Henry Bech stories, writing that he modelled the character on Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger and himself.

After spells in Berkeley, Belfast and Wicklow Seamus Heaney moved to Sandymount, Dublin, shortly after the publication of his ‘Troubles collection’, North. He would live there for the rest of his life, but rarely write about the area.

Lou Gehrig died of ALS at his home in New York. Two years earlier he had delivered his “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” address at Yankee Stadium.

Joni Mitchell Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell
Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell released Shadows and Light, a live recording featuring jazz musicians Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. It was her final album on the Asylum label, run by her Free Man in Paris.

Ten years after quitting his job as a crime reporter David Simon published The Corner, later praised as an “unblinking and agonizingly intimate” account of the urban drug trade on a single street corner in Baltimore.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, having narrowly avoided death during the construction of the Thames Tunnel, almost choked when he inhaled a coin while performing a trick for his children. The disc was finally jerked free weeks later.

John Coltrane formed his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. After two years the group produce one of the most famous recordings in jazz, A Love Supreme.

Despite years of frustration at a lack of commercial or public interest in his work Edward Hopper continued to paint, working on seascapes during time spent on an island off the coast of Maine.

'Monhegan Houses, Maine' Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

‘Monhegan Houses, Maine’
Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

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Finding God in a clean, well-lighted place

'Our nada who art in nada'. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place - Ernest Hemingway

‘Our nada who art in nada’.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place – Ernest Hemingway

Thinking of buying a new car? Don’t.

Trust me. Why? There is a theory that 21st century consumers value experiences, not products.

Unlike the boomer generation, the conspicuous consumers of the 1980s or the tech-fetishists of the 2000s, more of us now spend money to experience moments – as opposed to goods or services.

There’s a theory that this is a natural progression; after the agrarian, industrial and service economies we are now part of the ‘experience economy‘.

So far, so Forbes. But could the same theory be shifted from Instagram snaps of a Michelin-starred meal or a Grand Canyon sunset and applied instead to The Big Question?

Last week I wrote about Stephen Fry’s attack on, as he sees it, a maniac God. An atheist, Fry doesn’t believe in an omniscient, cloud-dwelling Creator, loving, judging and punishing.

But still God exists – because we need Him, or Her; the bearded man in the sky is a reflection of our concept of defeating death, of love without any end, of natural justice and  order.

But if God wasn’t a being, a single entity, could He still exist? Hardly, you’d think (if you were a monotheist). He either is or He’s not. Either you believe in Him or you do not.

‘Night on the Dnieper River’ Archip Kuindshi (1882) Pic: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Detail from ‘Night on the Dnieper River’
Archip Kuindshi (1882)
Pic: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

But what if – instead – God was an experience? What if, instead of spending our lives trying to attain a relationship with Him, we can connect with God through our experiences and our environment?

One man famously accumulated experiences but was not as a believer in God was Ernest Hemingway.

Having witnessed the horrors of mechanised warfare in the First World War (and being blown up by a mortar shell on the Italian front) the concept of a ‘good’ God may have too much for Hemingway to stomach (his subsequent novel about the war contains the notable line “all thinking men are atheists”).

Instead he found ‘nada’, nothing, the void. He wrote of this in his short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. At it’s end the main character, a waiter in a cafe, broods on the difficulty of sleep, of facing what waited at the day’s end.

It was a nothing that he knew too well…Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada they will be nada in nada as it is in nada.

But nada is not all.

The same waiter has just closed up, sending home his last customer – an old man who sits on the terrace nightly, refusing to leave until closing time, one of “all those who need a light for the night”.

Facing his long night, in nada as it is in nada, the old man’s light is a simple human experience –  the cafe, the brandy, the routine, the human contact. The waiter thinks:

It was all a nothing and man was a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

Here is God, not a cosmic figure reached by prayer or met after death but a connection here and now, an enlightened personal experience in this life in this world.

The human divine – only that.

'Sunlight in a Cafeteria' Edward Hopper (1958) Pic: Yale University Art Gallery

‘Sunlight in a Cafeteria’
Edward Hopper (1958)
Pic: Yale University Art Gallery

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God’s a maniac…but we really, really need him

Detail from ' Creation of the Sun and Moon' Michelangelo (1511) Sistine Chapel

Detail from ‘ Creation of the Sun and Moon’
Michelangelo (1511)

Well that’s Him told.

Comedian Stephen Fry reckons God is “utterly evil, capricious and monstrous”. He’s also “quite clearly a maniac” – one who inflicts unjust pain on people.

Something similar has occured to most rational people at some point, and even to the most devout, surely, on occasion. And yet we believe.

The believers were among the many who read and shared Fry’s remarks after they were reported this week.

But the comedian missed the point somewhat. It’s not God himself, a grumpy reactionary with odd, millennia-old, moral habits and preachy ground staff that we need, it’s the comfort believing in him offers us.

How would we get up in the morning (or face what’s lies before us at any other time of the day) without a repository for our fears, a cosmic counterweight to life’s unpredictable shifts?

God is an answer to the headline terrors: fear of death, fear of illness, fear of losing loved ones. “But he allows horrible cancers to kill children,” it’s pointed out. Well, we let that go.

We know most sin is bad and that some of the Ten Commandants have merit, but we seem less interested in holy box-ticking than in having an otherwordly comfort blanket to keep the bad stuff away.

Stephen Fry Pic: vpjayant

Stephen Fry
Pic: vpjayant

If we were guaranteed this comfort blanket we could do without the judgmental heavenly curmudgeon Himself, constantly watching and assessing us. But one comes with the other and – despite Stephen Fry’s outrage – most people find it hard to drop the lot.

There is a way out of this existential echo-chamber, of course, which doesn’t involve hoping, praying and queuing, fingers crossed, outside the Pearly Gates. This is to reject a God, accept the meaninglessness of life…and just get on with it.

If only it were that easy. Even those of us who profess disbelief, who can’t see through the celestial curtain to whatever lies beyond, have an occasional ‘what if’ moment.

What if there is a God? What if he’s reading my mind, putting me on His List or taking me off it? And if I believed would have to go through this tortuous second guessing every time I have insomnia, or am stuck at the traffic light, or walking on a beach?

There may well be a God. if it’s not each of us, or Stephen Fry, it may – to pick one contender among millions – be Randy Newman.

After all, didn’t He sing:

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me

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