Sunday, July 23, 2023

Posting Improvement Note

My posting about "Judgement" was a bit of a mess. I've cleaned it up a bunch, so you may want to give it another look.

One of its main conclusions (that judging is always existential; there's no such thing as selective, targeted judgement) still seems groggily unsupported (though I'm convinced it's true). I've been working on a clarifying post, but it's slow going.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Three Tony Bennett Stories

Gracious Freshness

I played with Tony just once, when he sang a set with Illinois Jacquet's big band at the Blue Note in Manhattan. At the end of the set, the audience, naturally, demanded "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". They weren't chanting it or anything, but they knew, we knew, and, above all, Tony definitely knew what was expected of him.

By this point, I was pretty hooked into the collective mind of the band (they were, after all, my peer group: 80 and 90 year old black dudes). I sensed, and shared, the consensus: "Aw, the poor bastard!"

We all knew the song was his albatross, of course, but this wasn't even his own gig. He hadn't even sung a full concert. And I'm quite sure he wasn't getting paid. Yet the audience wasn't going to let him out of there without obediently performing his little tap-dance - that stupid sentimental novelty song of little musical value which no one actually likes.

The song pattern matches to the guy, that's all. You don't want or need to hear it. Nobody does. But it's mentally associated with the name "Tony Bennett", and Tony Bennett was right there. So, of course, all is not right until he does his Tony Bennett thing (which is not at all Tony Bennett's thing, but everyone else's Tony Bennett thing).

He was gracious about it. Tony, after all, was the exemplar of graciousness. It's got to be weird to be at the top of your profession, 74 years old (at the time), and worth hundreds of millions of dollars and still be forced to dance, varmint, dance everywhere you go. But, from the band eye's view, he was - there is no other word - gracious.

The next thought waving through the communal band mind was "Poor Richard!" The great Richard Wyands was our pianist, and this Tony thing was all impromptu. We weren't working off of music parts. And "San Francisco" has all sorts of very specific and tricky little piano elements, none of which can be missed. And while Richard knows every goddamn song in the jazz and standards playbooks, this one, we all realized with a collective gulp, was outside his perimeter. It's not something he'd be called upon to play on a gig, though even the most grimly unmusical audience member knew every single note like their own face in the mirror. Plus, our bandleader was a raging bucket of irrational sadistic fury known by one and all in the jazz world (though, dear god, never to his face) as "The Beast". So, yeah, there was a wee bit of pressure on poor Richard, who prefers to project an image of cooly elegant authority.

Richard, pro that he is, survived the obstacle course (we heard his shattered nerves but the audience did not). And Tony sang his ass off. While this was my only data point from behind the guy, I took away the unassailable impression that he sang the song fresh.

I can't explain to you what that meant, in terms of actual notes. I'm not saying he broke into some merry bit of scat-singing to make This Time Different. He obligingly sang the song the way his audience (aka his captors) needed it sung. But he sang it fresh. Musicians - especially musicians sitting behind you - know the difference.


Oxygen-Sucking Karaoke

I had once sat in an identical rear-facing position to the great singer Joe Williams, who'd risen to fame with Count Basie's orchestra.

Notice how Joe holds himself. That's a horn player mentality
- all about the music, not the show biz. To contemporary eyes, it looks wrong.
Why is he not shucking and jiving?!?

After having backed a ton of singers in a ton of contexts, Joe was the first (and last) who wasn't doing karaoke. Most singers suck all the oxygen in the room, leaving the band as their wallpaper. They, alone, are performing, while we're MSPs, music service providers. Like Teamsters brought in to work the musical equipment. Think MRI technicians.

Playing behind Joe was like playing with a musician. Again, I can't explain this in terms of notes. But he locked in with us, it wasn't just us locking in with him. He was in the band, not just backed by the band.

Tony wasn't like this (though I'm sure he, too, loved Joe Williams). He was an oxygen-sucker - which is one reason he died with $200 million, while I assume Joe left a twelve year old Cadillac and a reasonably nice house. But he was such a great oxygen sucker that it was impossible to criticize. The set was so musical that it didn't need to be musical on musicians' terms. Sometimes the suboptimal, done extraordinarily well, is as good as (or even better than) optimality.

Triumphant Reconnection

It's very late in my music career. I may have already started Chowhound. I am out of practice, but my old high school bandmate, Brian, calls in a panic. A trombone player cancelled out of his big band's gig that night, and Brian needed a last minute replacement. Would I do him the favor?

The gig was way out on Long Island, but, by coincidence, so was I at that moment. No time to run home to get my horn, but Brian runs a music store, so I asked him to bring his best student rental trombone to the gig, and I'd fill in.

The horn was a monster. The slide barely moved, the tuning slide was jammed (so everything needed to be played 1% sharp to compensate). It was essentially unplayable, but I'd make it work.

I've told the story of playing a terrible Dixieland gig in terrible physical condition with a terrible band in a vacant field in some obscure corner of rural Spain on three hours sleep, and one of the most important figures in the business of jazz (who, egads, knew me) was improbably present for the performance. Now it was years later, and I thought I'd learned my lesson, but as the band tuned up (I opted out, as my instrument was literally un-tuneable), we learned that Tony Bennett would be enjoying dinner in this cheesey Long Island steakhouse. He'd be present to hear my high school friend's semi-professional big band with me on a student trombone incapable of producing, well, notes. Fun!

Brian is a very nice guy and an excellent musician, though he never broke out of the provincial Long Island scene, or the square swingy music we'd played together in high school. So he did what a very nice guy in those circumstances does: arranged a big feature for me. Naturally, I'd be soloing over Cherokee, the fastest song there is.

"No! NO, Brian! Do not make me play Cherokee with this terrible trombone with Tony Bennett watching me! Please don't...."

"Ladies and gentleman, it is my great pleasure to introduce an old schoolmate of mine...."

"NO!!!!! Brian, DON'T!!!!!"

" honor to have him..."

"Ok, ok, but PLEASE, for the love of god, Brian, don't remind him who I...."

"You may have heard him perform with Illinois Jacquet's band!"

From this point forward, I did not once look in Tony Bennett's direction. I somehow got through the extended solo, standing in a spotlight in front of the band, struggling to operate my unmusical instrument. At one point, Brian generously directed the rhythm section to stop for an entire chorus so I could play a cappella. I'd pronounce it mortifying, but some benevolent force inside my brain - who even knew there even was a benevolent force inside my brain? - has erased all specific memory.

Anyhoo, that was the last time I was in a room with Tony Bennett.

Sorry. That last one was a bit of a shaggy dog story, I know. Not the heart-warming pay-off you were expecting to mark the death of a major icon. But, hey, it's music biz stuff (Tony'd have gotten a kick out of it). Remember the time the greatest orchestral trombonist of his time, Ron Barron, utterly butchered the solo in Ravel's Bolero?

Friday, July 14, 2023

Elevators Relished and Eschewed

I spent my 20s and 30s living in fourth floor walkups, trudging laboriously up steps and yearning for elevators.

I now live in a fourth floor apartment in a building with an elevator which I ignore, bounding upstairs with a jubilant sensation of health and fitness.

This is an immense reframing. Pursued to its inevitable end (difficult, because we've all been conditioned the other way), it punctures all basis for striving after affluence and luxury.

Even now, at this very late date, it somehow escapes widespread notice that the affluent are rarely happy (even less-noticed: the First World's "poor" are rich by any conceivable standard. Bonus link).

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Intolerable Food Trends

List of Intolerable Food Trends...and Proposed Fines, by myself and friend-of-the-Slog Paul Trapani

Truffle Oil: $650/incident

Truffle Fries: $650/incident and 30 day time-out from serving potato products

Burrata: $8/plop

Gluten Free: Lose license to operate a food business

Advertising Intrinsically Gluten-Free Foods as “Gluten Free”: One toe per incident

Lattes: Non-crippling micropayment

Non-dairy Milk: Non-crippling micropayment

Non-dairy Milk Lattes: Temporary closure until corrected

Nutella: Temporary closure until corrected

Wraps (wrapping itself ok. Calling it “wrap” not ok): $45

Ghost Pepper: $3000 (you can afford it)

“Spritz of…”: $3000 (you can afford it)

Lobster Mac and Cheese: 150 work hours at a lobster fishery

“Hard” anything: Water boarding (each violation increased 10 secs)

Pumpkin Spice: Hair shearing, naked public marching

Himalayan Sea Salt: $3000 (you can afford it)

Gratuitous Bacon: Ineligibility for health insurance coverage

“Plant-Based”: $3000 (you can afford it)

“Plant-Based” meaning lots-of-mushrooms: Above, plus mandatory semester of community college biology (mushrooms are not plants)

Salted Caramel: $3000 (you can afford it)

Any Use of “Rum” Other Than Actual Rum: $9/incident

Zucchini Noodles: Non-lethal strangulation (lethal if called “Zoodles”)

Mint Leaves in Italian Cookery: Three-generational execution (parents, children, self) SEE ILLUSTRATION A

Making a Big Goddam Deal Over Ramps, Rather Than Just Using Ramps: Sliding scale based on bigness of deal

Boneless Wings: Compulsory consumption of one McDonald’s McNugget per incident

Use of “Yummy” on Menu: Sedation

Chia Seeds (outside of SEA drinks): 5¢/seed

Keto/Paleo: $50, plus compulsory testing for performance-enhancing drugs

“Natural”: Eye bleaching

“Local”: Ankle bracelet restricts movement perimeter < 500 yards

“Loaded”: Harrison Bergeron treatment

Soup Dumplings in Non-Shanghai Restaurants: Non-lethal scalding

Soup Dumplings in Non-Chinese Restaurants: Aggressive finger-trapping

“Bites”: One minute per menu incident with arm locked in mosquito-filled box

Sriracha Aioli: $3000 (you can afford it)

Illustration A: Italian stuffed artichoke with mint leaves at Lilia. Unspeakable.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023


Everyone judges all the time. Can't avoid it.

But creative (i.e. unique) people get judged particularly wrongly, because nobody understands what they're shooting for. This is why most people maintain an easily-familiar persona. As I've noted:
There are a few dozen clone lines in any society, no more. People are types, which is adaptive behavior because it lubricates social interaction. When you meet a brassy lady with a gravelly voice and energetic good humor, you feel that you know that person. Love her or hate her, you can deal with her comfortably due to long experience with her clone line. Same for the aloofly ponderous academic. Or the BAD BOY. No one's born as these things. The personas are adopted via modeling, these days mostly via movie and TV actors. In the old days, one modeled the persona of a family member or another local "role models" (turn that phrase around in your mind for a moment!).

We really commit to the role. People never feel more expressively uniquely themselves than when they're being most flagrantly clone-ish. That's how the millions driving VW bugs or listening to "indie rock" manage to feel fiercely nonconformist. "Hey, I'm a free-thinking type! Yeah, one of those!"
But don't be eager to self-justify in the face of unfair judgement. "People don't like/respect/reward me because they don't understand me!" is something assholes say. It doesn't necessarily make you one to say it, but you do need to develop self-awareness before getting snotty about it. Can you recognize that you're non-awesome in nearly every way (ideally without getting all mopey about it)?

Also: there's useful information in other people's judgement, regardless of the aptness of their verdict. Back up a step!
When people give you bad advice, ignore the advice but pay close attention to the problem...then solve it your way.

I used to go ballistic when editors suggested thoughtless changes to my writing. It took the longest time for me to understand that I was missing a phenomenal learning experience. If I'd simply ignored the suggestions, and focused on the issues prompting those suggestions, I'd have seen all my writing problems helpfully mapped out. Instead, I spent years raging at the stupid suggestions.
If you're quite sure of yourself, despite fierce and sustained self-skepticism, then go ahead and ignore the judgment...but do recognize they're noticing SOMETHING. Some knot of confusion. A non-smoothness. Respect your tormentors by seeing as they see. Clinically inhabit their perspective. You don't need to "fix" it. And you certainly won't go far by explaining yourself and requesting a do-over. But recognition is useful. Seize the opportunity!

Finally, if you're a doddering oldster like me who's come to understand exactly why people get you wrong (discounting and forgiving their perfectly understandable observational errors, with which you sympathize), and you can concede that you've obstinately and self-indulgently chosen to dance to different drummers and avoid the usual type-casting (thus confusing one and all re: your motivations and inclinations), and you've scoured your assumptions, motives, and inclinations to be entirely sure you actually are who and what you imagine yourself to be, there are two simple precepts you must accept as gospel to have a chance to remain happy and sane. They're simple and obvious, but you must scale the Himalayas to fully internalize them:

1. Judgement is lazy.

Any adolescent is a genius at it. Tolerance is way harder, and it requires ongoing effort. So judges don't outrank you, despite the seeming power imbalance of judge-vs-judged. They're very lazy. So lazy! Judges feel superior, but they reveal - embarrassingly! - their feeble uselessness (read this and consider the close connection).

But don't judge them for it (though it's temptingly lazy to do so)! Just bear this in mind, ideally with the empathy and forgiveness they fail to extend to others.

2. You're Okay!

This is a big chunk of the PTSD move I need to periodically engage.

You deserve your portion of free sunlight and oxygen. It's okay that you're here. You may exist.

This observation will seem odd to most people. Of COURSE one deserves those things! Of course it's okay to exist!

But that reaction shows you're on the wrong side. You're the judge. You're the bully. People with a capacity for self-doubt, and who are frequently misunderstood, know that it's a towering accomplishment to decide they deserve the sunlight and oxygen, and that it's okay that they're here. To them, it seems heady.

Judges have made them feel otherwise. That's because for the few humans not lost in a narcissistic haze, judgement is clearly seen as what it is: existential. It's "No; not you!" Judgement is never selective, regardless of how judges frame their actions. Criticism can be benignly targeted, but not judgement. Judgement is like Space Invaders. It winnows the encroaching horde of faceless assholes. It's holistic cleansing, with scant regard for the babies amid the bathwater.

But no. You're okay, regardless of the judging. Not flawless or blameless, necessarily. But you're OKAY. You least as much as the lazy judges do.

If you can recognize and accept your actual inadequacies, respecting your tormentors by understanding how they frame things without turning them into assholes who deserve no sympathy (i.e. whom you, yourself, are judging)...and you also fully embrace the two precepts, you might enjoy a low-simmering peaceful life amid louts and eternal adolescents, enjoying sunlight and oxygen. It might seem meager, but Apprecianists enjoy certain rewards.

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