Two Good Reasons to Celebrate December 14 - Shirley Jackson ("The Lottery" Author) & Clark Terry (Montreux Jazz Festival)
On July 29th of this year, the New Yorker magazine published "Paranoia," a recently discovered short story by Shirley Jackson, who was born on this date in 1916. By now, just about every high school student since the 1960's has read, "The Lottery," her most famous story, which the New Yorker published in 1948.
According to shirleyjackson.org, that story generated the "largest volume of mail ever received by the magazine - before or since - almost all of it hateful."
I re-read the story before penning this blog, and it still gives me chills. Of course, I'm predisposed to feel that way, given news reports pouring in from Centennial, Colorado, where a high school student took his own life after critically shooting another student, an innocent who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What makes me think of Jackson in this context is that everyone who knew the shooter said what a "nice" guy he was. That's exactly how you might describe any of the characters in "The Lottery." They're this neighborly, smiling group of small-town folk, gathered in the town square as if for a concert. You'd never know from all this "niceness" that they're about to stone a woman to death.
"Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," the story's oldest character says nonchalantly. That's our clue that the poor victim is a scapegoat. In the Bible, a scapegoat was an actual animal upon whom the collective sins of the people had been placed. It strikes me that this is what our children have become. In last year's Newtown shootings and in Columbine, and now Centennial, to name the few that come quickly to mind, the children have been made to carry the sin of internalized violence about which we are largely unconscious.
Carl Jung wrote that "unconsciousness is sin," and that may be why we see the same dumfounded expressions - the same mindless search for answers, the same entrenched debate about guns - after each of these once unthinkable catastrophes. We're unconscious of how the acceptance of violence in our culture has separated us from sanity. We accept violent movies, TV shows, and video games. We agree to it in song lyrics. We watch it on the news while eating pizza and gulping soft drinks. We accept it the way Jackson's characters in "The Lottery" accept the terrible thing they are about to do. And it's anybody guess - the luck of the draw - which school-age child will become the next scapegoat, the bearer of our collective sin.
If you don't have a published copy of "The Lottery" handy, I've included a 10-minute film version (released in 2007) below. If little Davy looks familiar, it's Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, from The Omen. Be forewarned - the filmmakers changed it a little. But the basic idea is there. Also, the New Yorker published quite an interesting interview with Jackson's son, Laurence Jackson Hyman, in the same issue as "Paranoia," and you can find that here.
Moving on to a happier subject, jazz great Clark Terry turns 93 today. Born December 14th in Saint Louis, MO, he is best known as an innovator of flugelhorn jazz. But his work with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones has taken him through swing, hard bebop and eventually to the Jazz Masters Hall of Fame. The clip below features the birthday boy himself at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival in a performance of "Samba de Orfeu." Jazz fans will recognize Oscar Peterson on piano, Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet on vibes. Ronnie Scott, Joe Pass (guitar), Niels Pedersen (bass), and Bobby Durham (drums). It's fourteen minutes of fun. Makes you feel like dancing, don't it? So go ahead, why don't you? There's nobody here but us chickens.
Pope John XXIII
Well look, there's even a movie about the man called The Good Pope. So what does that tell you? No wonder the two living popes (Benedict and Francis) have agreed to canonize him on April 27th of next year. He is already officially revered under the title Blessed. And even though only one miracle has been attributed to his intercession, he has been green-lighted for sainthood by the Vatican.
Born this day in 1881, Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958. By all accounts, he embodied sainthood during his lifetime. Known for his humility and wit, he convened the Second Vatican Council, which brought ideas of ecumenism and in an increased focus on relatedness to the once insular Roman Catholic Church.
In his quiet way, he revolutionized the church and was arguably its most important figure during the 20th century. A powerful man, he never took himself seriously. People loved him. With the exception of John Paul II, who will also be canonized next April, that is not something that can be said of too many pontiffs. We respect the others and maybe love the "idea" of pope, but to actually love the man, to be moved toward loving kindness because of their personal example - well, that's really something. When I think of John XXIII, I can't help but remember the protagonist of Graham Greene's novel, The Power and the Glory, who though very different from Pope John, comes to the conclusion Angelo Roncali must have reached in the days before papal responsibility was thrust upon him: "He knew now that at the end there was only one thing that counted - to be a saint.”
Interestingly, Pope John XXIII left the planet in 1963, a few months before JFK was also taken from us. It happens like this sometimes. A beloved secular figure moves on during the same year as a much-loved spiritual one. Consider 1997, for instance. We lost Princess Diana in August and Mother Theresa in September. I have no idea what that means. Maybe it means nothing. But I do find the parallelism intriguing, though I have no plans to research similar "coincidences" any time soon.
Nuance, transcendence, beauty. These are all words that come to mind when I think of Paul Desmond, but of course I try never to think of him while listening to him play. One of the foremost proponents of "cool jazz" back in the 1960's, his music still gets a lot of play on my iPod. Born in San Francisco on this day in 1924, Paul Desmond is best known for his collaborations with the great Dave Brubeck. And of course, his opening solo on the group's chart-topping hit, "Take Five," which he also composed, is legendary. Take five, why don't you, and give it a listen.
Mike Nichols Turns 82 Today; Kennedy Center Tribute; Birthdays for Emma Stone & Arturo Sandoval, Too
When it comes to Mike Nichols, one has only to remember the famous comment about Chartres: "The only response is gratitude." And to paraphrase the Beatles, there's nothing you can say about him that can't be said, or has not already been said. But Playwright Tom Stoppard handles the task beautifully, with a wit and intelligence worthy of his subject, in this tribute and brief film bio during the 2003 Kennedy Center Honors. Happy Birthday, Mike. And thanks...
Ten years ago, when she was 15, Emma Stone reportedly gave a PowerPoint presentation to her parents, set to Madonna's "Hollywood," to convince them to let her move to California for an acting career. A year later, she moved to LA with her mother, where she was home-schooled so she could audition for acting roles. She's all over the place now, and you can find her readily - a bonafide A-List star. Here's the "I'm in trouble" scene from The Amazing Spiderman.
John F. Kennedy, whose assassination the whole world will be remembering in a couple of weeks, once famously pointed out that "the torch has passed to a new generation." In the world of jazz, there is no better example of how best to do this than the mentor-protege relationship between Dizzy Gillespie and Arturo Sandoval, who was born in Artemesia, just outside Havana, Cuba, on this day 64 years ago. Recently awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he has racked up half-a-dozen Grammy Awards and lights up audiences wherever he goes. Here is the young (and still thin) Arturo with Dizzy in a performance of Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia," during a 1985 concert in Havana itself. Feliz Cumpleanos, Arturo!
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Born this day in 1722, Coleridge is best known these days for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kublai Khan, and his addiction to opium. His great friendship with the poet, William Wordsworth, ended in a rift that lasted 20 years before they reconciled. Although Kublai Khan came to him in an opium dream, he was unable to remember the complete vision when came out of it. In fact, his creative output fell significantly during his addiction, which he did eventually manage to control somewhat if not defeat entirely before the end of his life.
The youngest of nine children, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie was born this day in 1917 in Cheraw, North Carolina. Though this prodigy who began playing the piano at the age of four started out imitating the style of Roy Eldridge, he eventually created a style of his own. Along with Charlie "Bird" Parker, he helped originate the be-bop style of jazz. Also noted for his swollen cheeks and Afro-Cuban musical style, he is one of the greats without whom no history of jazz would be complete. Here he is at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival with bassist Ray Brown, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Jimmy Smith, and pianist Monty Alexander.
It's rather fitting that today is also the birthday of another Afro-Cuban musical great. Born in 1925, she was given the birth name of Ursula Hilaria Celia de la Caridad Cruz Alfonso, but we know her as the Queen of Salsa. Here she is with "La Negra Tiene Tumbao."
Esperanza Spalding, Wynton Marsalis, Novelist Terry McMillan Born Today & Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion Car Patented
Born this day in 1984 was the first jazz artist to win a Grammy for Best New Artist of the Year. Here she is playing Stevie Wonder's "Overjoyed" at the White House in 2009.
A master of jazz and classical forms, he turns 51 today. Here is a jazz performance of "Sheik of Araby" followed by Handel's "Eternal Source of Light," from his from his admirable collaboration with soprano Kathleen Battle
Eternal Source of Light Divine - Simply Beautiful
Born today in 1951, she gave the world a story that needed to be told as only she could tell it. Her first novel, Mama, published in 1987, might never have made it past the first 5,000 copies had she not launched an aggressive letter-writing campaign to book-store owners around the country using word-processing skills mastered during her day job. But everyone knows it's Waiting to Exhale that put her on the map. Here's Whitney Houston singing the title song over a montage of scenes from the movie version.
The Dymaxion Car
Its inventor, R. Buckminster Fuller, applied for a patent on this day in 1933. A three-wheeler that got 30-miles to the gallon, it received design assistance from sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, and for a while really did seem like the car of the future. The name "Dymaxion" is a mash-up of "dynamic," "maximum," and "ion." Although a fatal accident caused investors to withdraw financial support, you can see from the video below that it really was ahead of its time. But no worries for Bucky, who once said, "I seem to be a verb." He went on to invent the Geodesic Dome, one of the strongest structures ever built.
The Great Jazz Virtuoso, Art Tatum, Born This Day & Paul Simon, Too. Still Playing After All These Years
His improvisations take him everywhere, but you can trust him absolutely to resolve everything in the end. Here is a rare clip of the master, born this day in 1909, playing "Yesterdays."
Here's Steve Martin's very funny tribute to birthday boy, Paul Simon (72 today. Yikes!), during the 2002 Kennedy Awards. (A little fuzzy but worth it)
"If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it," was one of Elmore Leonard's rules for writing. Here's another: "Leave out the parts people tend to skip." He left the planet on August 20th of this year, shortly before his 88th birthday. But he left behind plenty of tracks before he took off. If you care at all about the craft of writing, the following clip is worth the mildly annoying video frame-sync issues.
One of the great jazz drummers, known mostly for his work as leader of the Jazz Messengers, was also born on this day in 1919.
I'm a storyteller whose background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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