Wednesday, May 03, 2006


are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time magazine?

Allen Ginsberg, America.
George Russell, Concerto for Billy the Kid.

America, after all,
it is you and I who are perfect,
not the next world...

Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" gets all the press, but his "America," also published in 1956, has always appealed to me more. For one thing, it's incredibly funny, particularly in this recording, which is more stand-up routine than poetry reading.

Taking in all of recent American history, from the Red Scare to the rise of the homogeneous suburban society, and herding in all the leftist sacred cows he could remember (from the Wobblies and Sacco and Vanzetti to the Scottsboro Boys), Ginsberg hashed it all together into a fantasia in which history is reincarnated as ridiculous myth, with Ginsberg himself at the center, a joyful imp of affirmation.

Businessmen are serious
Movie producers are serious
Everybody's serious but me!
It occurs to me that I am America! I am talking to myself again!

"America" is what its title claims--the country, in all its lunacy and brilliance, represented faithfully. It was a harbinger that the next decade was going to be a strange one...

As someone (Luc Sante, I think) recently said, Ginsberg was the last American poet whose work had the impact of rock & roll songs (for good and ill, in terms of Ginsberg's later work--remember "Ghetto Defendant"?) This recording of "America" comes from the Town Hall Theater, in Berkeley, California, in March 1956. Find here; "Howl and Other Poems" is here.

America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from reading the newspapers.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true, I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Elsewhere in the country, the arranger and composer George Russell, after working for a decade in relative obscurity, at last got the chance to make a record. Russell, who had written "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" for Dizzy Gillespie, was a classic American crank. A genius as well as gadfly, Russell spent countless years on what he believed would be his masterwork, a tome called The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization.

Musical theory is not my strength, so here's Russell himself to explain what the Lydian Concept was:

"It acknowledges the existence of a central tonality and an underlying tonic tone (or primary axis) for a whole area, regardless of the degree of dissonance used in the area." The era of jazz mathematics had begun.

In The Jazz Workshop, his first album as a leader, Russell "aligned each musician like a layer in a cake" (Gary Giddins) . Take the pulsing opening of "Concerto for Billy the Kid," in which the arrangement is staggered to let each player make his entrance. "Billy the Kid," however, mainly consists of "attempts to supply a frame to match the vigor and vitality in the playing of the young pianist Bill Evans," as Russell admits in his liner notes. This is Evans' first great recorded performance: a solo that begins as an Astaire-like solitary tap dance.

"Billy the Kid" was recorded in Webster Hall, NYC, on October 17, 1956. With Art Farmer (t), Hal McKusick (alto sax), Evans (p), Barry Galbraith (g), Milt Hinton (b), Paul Motion (d). On Jazz Workshop, which is now out of print, so get it cheap on Complete Bluebird Recordings.

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