Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy, please

These are all images painted by the incredibly prolific J. C. Leyendecker (b. 1874), a highly influential illustrator from the 20th century.

Leyendecker, who preceded Norman Rockwell at the Saturday Evening Post by a generation, either invented or popularized several mainstays of American Holiday iconography: the fat jolly red- garbed Santa, 4th of July fireworks, flowers on Mother's Day, and the subject of the paintings shown here, the New Years Baby. He painted 322 SEP covers and did the illustrations for Arrow shirts, and Kuppenheimer suits among many others.

An openly gay man in an era when such a thing was frowned upon (to say the least), he died in seclusion in 1951, cared for by his lover and friend, who had once been his main model.

In these days of cultural and racial diversity, Leyendecker's and (to a lesser extant) Rockwell's images of an all too white Xmas, New Years and Thanksgiving seem so dated. The sentiment is there, but the inclusion of all America is glaringly absent. A sign of the times.

The Future is Now!

Now that we're hours away from 2010, it's clear that every day is a day from the future. There's just something about the designation 2000 and any subsequent years that screams, "FUTURE!" And of course, 2010 screams it way more than 2009. Just wait 'til we get to 2020.

Obviously I'm not talking about the actual future that never gets here without becoming the present and then the past, but the portentous, oft- predicted- H. G. Wellsian FUTURE, the one that is NOW, the one that has Men of Tomorrow living in it, the one with ray guns, anti- gravity belts, personal rockets, shrinking rays, clothes with stiff epaulets on the shoulders and space suits with huge glass helmets. That future.

Will 2010 see the invention of the time machine? Of course it will! Utopian apartment communities with
glass tubes for transportation? Yes! Weather domes that shield an entire city from snow, rain and hurricanes? Yes, yes and YES!!!

Cars that drive themselves, robot servants, and delicious food made from tiny pellets may have to wait until 2011, but how far away is that? Don't forget recreating dinosaurs and turning invisible. I predict that by 2012 we will have achieved every one of these things.

The future is upon us, my friends- let's use it wisely.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Secret Santa

This photograph has not been digitally altered.

This is a pic by California photographer Andy Thomas, taken on December 12th, 2009 at the Santa Con in SanFrancisco where they certainly know how to have a good time.

B & W Santa goes by BrodyQat on Flickr, and here's a shot from her collection:

Kinda cool, eh?

Friday, December 25, 2009

Call the Cab!

I can't really this date go by without saying Happy Birthday to the hipster's hipster, the Hi- De- Ho man himself, Cab Calloway.

I'm going to skip the biography this time because Ms. Confetta has covered it so thoroughly on her great blog On This Day In Jazz Age Music.

I can't even remember a time when I didn't know who Cab was. He sang an expurgated version of Minnie the Moocher on Ed Sullivan- no gongs were harmed during the Sunday family hour. He stole the movie Stormy Weather, except of course when Lena sings the title tune, and one of the few records that my friend Jock Haight had when we were kids was a Cab Calloway record with The Jumpin' Jive on it. We marveled at the lyrics and finally understood them at roughly the same time we understood Brother Dave Gardner's "Let's blow this joint- pass it on to the waitress" quip.

Then there were the movies at the Biograph Theater in Georgetown. First were the Betty Boops:

followed by the amazing Reefer Man performance from International House:

Back then any pot references from the thirties or forties was like discovering a secret brotherhood of hipsters.

Ultimately it was the first Blues Brothers movie (as bad as it was) that brought him back. I kept trying to meet him (the list again) but I never did. As I began researching jazz more and more I found out that Cab was a canny businessman, a no- nonsense band leader and a tough boss. He travelled to his gigs in a private train car so his musicians didn't have to be exposed to the vicious Jim Crow laws of the South. He was not a jazzman, not really, but a consummate professional entertainer, who surrounded himself with the finest musicians he could get, like Danny Barker, Milt Hinton, Chu Berry, and even Dizzy Gillespie who actually knifed Cab after being accused (wrongly) of having hurled a spitball at the boss.

The Calloway Band of 1936

Because of shows like Sesame Street, even in the '70's and '80's every kid in the US knew who Cab Calloway was.

He performed right up to his death in 1994. Does it get much better than that?

So Happy Birthday and Happy Holidays and everything else to my lifelong pal Cab Calloway. Have a knish-a, Mischa!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Xmas to All and to All...

Nobody depicted Christmas in America better than Norman Rockwell.

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Peace on Earth to All.

Stocks Market

Recently there's been two incidents, affronts really, that have surfaced in the news.

The first involves the family of the "balloon boy". To recap: six- year- old Falcon Heene was reportedly trapped in a large helium balloon built to resemble a UFO that travelled as high as 7,000 feet before it landed northeast of the Denver airport. Authorities tracking the balloon, worried all along that the boy may have fallen from it, recovered it devoid of passenger.

Falcon was found unharmed, hiding in the Heene family house.

Heene pretending to have found his boy unharmed

As the story unraveled, it turned out that the boy's father Richard Heene had engineered a hoax, purportedly to get the family onto reality television. (Richard had been on some show and enjoyed the resultant publicity.) His wife Mayumi was involved, and they were both finally sentenced to jail time and must pay severe fines.

The second case involves Tariq and Michaele Salahi, a Virginia couple who crashed a high- level White House dinner and then wrote about it in Facebook. Again, to recap: the Salahis, a dubious "socialite" couple were candidates for a proposed reality television show (hmmmm) involving the housewives of DC, in the "Housewives of Orange County" mold. Mr. Salahi, an owner of a very much litigated now bankrupt winery, married Mrs. Salahi in a lavish wedding back in 2003. Since that time the couple has lost most of their money, but not their desire for the lush life.

So, on November 24th, 2009, they decided that since they had no valid invitation to a White House dinner in honor of Indian leader Monmohan Singh, they would just go and see if they could get in anyway. And they did.

In a monumental breach of Secret Service protocol, the Salahis waltzed in, got their pictures taken with a bunch of famous folks and waltzed out with no one the wiser. That is, until they posted pics and bragged about their triumph in their Facebook entry the next day.

The Salahis with Vice- President Joseph Biden

Two cases of arrogance, stupidity, cupidity and utter hubris, not to mention greed and rampant disregard for others.

The Salahis have not been charged (yet), and the Heenes are going to jail. But isn't there a better punishment for the two couples? I think so, but unfortunately it's been outlawed in this country since 1905.

I'm talking about stocks. No, not the kind you buy on Wall Street. I'm talking about this kind:

The kind they put pilgrims in. The kind they locked you into in Medieval times. You know, then they'd tickle your feet (actually that's more of a pillory but what the hey) or throw vegetables or even rocks at you . I'm not saying that we should throw rocks at the Heenes or tickle Michaele Salahi's feet, but I bet you a few hours in the stocks would teach these morons not to watch so much reality television.

The stocks could be set up on the National Mall, right near the Merry- Go- Round. A guard could be posted in case things got out of hand. Those food and souvenir trucks could sell rotten vegetables or eggs and then people could throw them. Or maybe yell pejoratives at the unfortunate couples.

Some choice media coverage, a few You Tube videos and the whole thing is over. Case closed.

And why stop at the Heenes and the Salahis? Remember the Runaway Bride? And how about the producers of these reality TV shows? And all the people who became dubious personalities as a result? Like everyone who was ever on "Road Rules", for instance. Or any politician caught in a humiliating hypocritical position, like Governor Sanford of South Carolina. Or Senator David Vitter of Louisiana. The list goes on and on.

After a few stock punishments you'd see a real decrease in hubristic criminality. And wouldn't that be a relief?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Still Designing

I'm still trying to get the right template for this site, so please bear with me. Kinda like this one, though- comments?

I Want to Go to Veronica Lake, Part II

Just found these portraits of Little by Little(hales) favorite Veronica Lake on Mr. Door Trees' fine blog, Golden Age Comic Book Stories. I'm not sure who shot them, perhaps George Hurrell. Photographers like Hurrell, Ernest Bachrach, Ted Allan, Clarence Bull, and several others created near- flawless images of the stars, especially the women. They were portrayed far more glamorously than in their movies, and they knew it. A photosession with Hurrell was as important to some stars as a screen test with, say, George Cukor .

These photographers created an indelible vocabulary: a large spot for the back- light, small soft spots on the face, contoured make-up, provocative poses like impossible back- arching or the cleavage- enhancing shrug of the shoulders, and sensual backgrounds. This vocabulary is still used today in Playboy and Maxim magazine. The lighting may have flattened, mostly because selective spot lighting isn't as effective in color as it was in black and white, otherwise, the essential language hasn't changed.

Enough words.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Paul Butterfield

I wouldn't be a harmonica player today if it weren't for Paul Butterfield.

One afternoon in 1965 my friend Mr. Freeland- Archer and I were walking home from high school, and we stopped in the Variety Records on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, Maryland. ("Variety Records-- thaaat's the place!"- Barry Richards.)

Mr. F-A saw a record with a picture on the cover of a bunch of hoodlums hanging out in front of a charms/ herb store. One guy was wearing silver boots. They all looked pretty disreputable. "Let's get this," said Mr. F-A.

We took it back to his place and popped it on the turntable. It was, of course, the first Butterfield Blues Band record on Electra, the one with Elvin Bishop and Mike Bloomfield. Sam Lay, the drummer was the one with the silver shoes. We had never heard music like this before in our short lives. It literally blew our minds.

I had a harmonica because I used to play along with the Yardbirds' version of "I'm a Man" which was a quasi- hit on the radio at the time. Butterfield's harmonica playing was nothing like the anemic chording of Yardbirds' singer Keith Relf. Butterfield's harmonica playing was in your face. Loud, sure, melodic and complex. Pure tone, unique vibrato and intense phrasing. In short, it was clear that to Paul Butterfield, the harmonica was an actual musical instrument, capable of holding it's own in any musical context, but particularly in urban blues.

It was a short trip from Butterfield to Little Walter, Junior Wells, and Charlie Musselwhite, the pre-eminent blues harp players of the day, along with the late Rice Miller. I paid my money and climbed on board, and began to devour every single blues recording I could get my hands on.

Most of these artists' sounds could be found at Discount Records at Dupont Circle, where I eventually got a job and continued to fatten my collection.

I ate, slept and drank Paul Butterfield through the remainder of the '60's and '70's. I copied his haircut, his wardrobe and his stage moves. Mostly I copied his playing. To this day, I still hear more of Butter's distinctive sound in my playing than any other single artist. Some guys are Little Walter guys, some guys are Sonny Boy Williamson guys, some guys sound like themselves, but I'm a Butterfield guy.

I knew some people that he knew and eventually I got to meet him. The third time I met him, we were introduced by Sonny Freeman, B. B. King's great drummer, whom we both knew and respected.

"Hey, Paul," said Sonny, "You know Bret Littlehales?"

"Yeah, " said Butterfield, "I know Bret and he's an asshole."

All I could think was, wow--- Butterfield knows who I am!

Okay- so I never made friends with my idol. That wasn't the point. The point was that Butter gave me a goal and a way of achieving that goal. He gave me a big lift to the life I wanted to lead- the musician's life, the bohemian life, the cool life. And if, pre- Butter, I didn't know what I wanted, only that wanted something that would place me apart from the rich, preppy, well- dressed jerks I went to private school with (relax, guys- I don't feel that way now), then post- Butter I figured it out. Play the blues, stay cool, brother. And I still play the blues, and I'm still cool, brother.

Sadly, Butterfield isn't one of the blues survivors like his fellow musician Charlie Musselwhite. Butterfield's lifestyle dogged him constantly into the '70's and beyond: drugs, alchohol, bad career dexisions, in short, all of the detritus of the '60's, plus a deep- seated need to be like his idols, the black bluesmen he grew up listening to on the streets and in the clubs of Chicago, where he was born and raised.

"He loved Little Walter,' said B. B. King. "He lived like him and he died like him."

In May of 1987, Paul Butterfield died of an overdose from a combination of drugs and alchohol. A month earlier, he stood side-by- side with Albert King and Stevie Ray Vaughn and sang Elmore James's "The Sky Is Crying," for a B. B. King birthday special on public television. Within a year all three would be dead.

In a different world, we'd be listening today to his latest record or making plans to see him at a club, and speculating on what great new guitarist might be in his band. It seems that one of the legacies of the '60's is brevity: creativity and the people who achieved it were only here a short time. That's just the way it is sometimes. It all went too fast.

Happy Birthday, Paul. We'll play a song for you tonight. It won't be easy.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Fat Man Dances

When I was a kid, my grandfather and I used to watch Jackie Gleason every Saturday night. Even though the Honeymooners had become pretty bad by then (no Audrey Meadows), we loved Joe the Bartender, with Frank Fontaine as Crazy Guggenheim, a character that would be impossible to feature on TV today: a mentally retarded drunk with an quasi- autistic compensity for singing maudlin Irish ballads. Ah, the good old days!

Looking back, however, the most amazing aspect of that show was when Jackie Gleason danced. The graceful fat man is an old cliche, but it shouldn't be. There are very few fat men who are genuinely graceful. Sure, they have economy of movement and all that other crap, but when you get right down to it, it's pretty rare that a fat man can really dance.

All this makes Gleason's dance all the more remarkable.

Okay, so it's the same dance every time, usually performed by Reginald Van Gleason, the mustachioed playboy character, joined in this clip by beautiful Audrey Meadows as a hottie vamp. For those who have only seen Meadows as Alice Kramden, this may come as a surprise. The dance begins at 3:10:

Sometimes Ralph Kramden does the dance (here begun by the incomparable Art Carney at 1:24):

People born before 1960 may recognize Gleason's dance as the prototype of the "Hippie Dance" usually performed at Grateful Dead shows. Of course, THAT dance is as obnoxious as the Dead's music was, whereas Gleason's dance is sublime.

Gleason was justifiably proud of his dance. By the 1956, he claimed he had been doing it for twenty years. He never did fully complete the ending somersault, at least not to my knowledge, but he never stopped attempting it, until, of course, he got too old.

Music and dance were very important to Jackie Gleason He married Marilyn Taylor, his choreographer June Taylor's sister, late in life after a tumultuous first marriage to a dancer that ended in 1971, and a brief second marriage that ended in 1974, and, from all accounts, they lived as happily ever after as anyone one could with an egomaniac like Gleason.

For myself and my grandfather, an appreciation of Gleason's dance was one of the many things we shared: the essential ballet of life for the fat man. Here he does a soft shoe that ends with his partial somersault, beginning at 3:25:

A little traveling music, Ray! And awaaaay we go!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dorothy Lamour

Dorothy Lamour, born in New Orleans on this date in 1914, and died September 22nd, 1996. It's not like I have the same fixations for Dorothy as I do for, say, Veronica Lake, however
1. she was born in New Orleans
2. my granddaughter's name is Dorothy, as is my grandmother's
3. I found this great comic book cover with very early art by Wally Wood inside at Golden Age Comic Book Stories.
4. she's in those terrific "Road" pictures made back when Bob Hope was actually funny and
5. I also found a strange video with the above- mentioned Veronica Lake:

So here's to you, Dorothy Lamour- happy birthday!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Empty Spaces in Need of Art: National Gallery, pt. III

These empty galleries at the National seem beautiful in their austerity, but I also find them disturbing.

The lights focused on the blank spots where the canvasses used to hang are kind of creepy. What exactly are we supposed to be looking at?

There's probably a good reason they're empty: a touring exhibit or a restorative stay in the basement for cleaning, but still, an empty gallery has an eerie quality to it.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Rest of the Picture

I found this amazing photograph on the web a couple of weeks ago, while searching for "harmonicas" on Google. It is, from left to right, Rice "Sonny Boy Williamson II' Miller, Jimmy Rogers and Muddy Waters.

I sent a copy to my friend Ward Gaines, co- author of the definitive Little Walter biography, Blues With A Feeling, ©2002, Routledge Press, who sent it to his fellow authors. Scott Dirks wrote back, wondering who the fourth man was. Was it Little Walter?

Last Sunday I went to see Chicago blues harp great Steve Guyger and told him about the picture. He said he had seen the picture at Jimmy Roger's house, back in the days when Steve played in Jimmy's band. He said the missing guy was James Cotton. He also said that the picture had gone missing from Jimmy's house shortly before Rogers' death in 1997.

Hmmm... not Little Walter, but James Cotton? I thought that it didn't look like Cotton (all this from that sliver on the right), and sent Steve a copy of the picture.

According to his reply, there's actually a fifth figure cropped out. Cotton is in the lower left of the picture, seated, looking up at Sonny Boy. The mystery man on the right is Otis Spann, Muddy's longtime pianist and band- leader.

Yep- here's the full frame, courtesy of the internet. When I think of the hundreds of snapshots like this, probably taken by a fan or friend of the musicians, I have to wonder what happened to all of them. Some must still exist, in someone's scrapbook or in an old trunk in an attic somewhere. Where are the pictures of Muddy, Jimmy and Little Walter playing together? There are no pics of that band in action that I've ever seen. The greatest blues band ever and there are no pics, not even from studio sessions.

I haven't given up, and neither has Steve Guyger, nor Ward Gaines or any of the other collectors and fanatics of this great music. Someday, baby, someday....

Thursday, December 3, 2009

When I take My Sugar to Tea

Happy Birthday, Connee Boswell- I love you!

Even though you stopped singing on the planet in 1976, October 11th, to be exact, I hear and see you all the time. I hear you when Ella Fitzgerald sings, and I hear you in Peggy Lee. I hear you and your sisters on my I-pod, singing "When I take My Sugar to Tea". I see you every time I go to your birthplace, AGC, New Orleans, LA. Why, I just saw you in a cameo on Turner Classic Movies the other night. You played Connee Boswell. You knocked me out.

Connee (or Connie) was born in New Orleans in 1907 on this date. She and her sisters, Martha and Vet (for Helvetia) grew up surrounded by great music, and were thought of as musical prodigies themselves. Multi- instrumentalists, they turned down an opportunity to play with the New Orleans Philharmonic.

The girls became known for their highly intricate vocal arrangements, mostly done by Connee, and their innate ability to really swing. They began recording in the late twenties and in the late thirties, Martha and Vet retired to raise families. Not Connee, though.

With Der Bingle

Despite being confined to a wheelchair since childhood as a result of a bout with polio, she continued as a solo singer into the early 1960's. She was Bing Crosby's favorite, as well as a major influence on Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. The Andrews Sisters claimed the Boswells as their inspiration and jazz singers male, female, black and white acknowledge her influence on their phrasing and diction.

With Etta James' father Minnesota Fats

Happy 102nd birthday, Connee. Let's get together over a beignet and a coffee at the Du Monde next time I'm in town, like we always do.


Ginevra de' Benci or the National Gallery of Art II

This painting, by Leonardo Da Vinci, completed in 1475, hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.

Anyone can see this painting any day of the week for free. Imagine: a inarguably priceless object, shimmering with virtuosity, from the hand of a man so gifted that he could paint this and do a thousand other things brilliantly, just waiting for you or me to walk through and look at it.

No stupid action movie or conspiracy book can compare with this real- life miracle. This is Leonardo, this is a masterpiece of art, beautifully lit and displayed and it's ours. It belongs to us.

I could go on and on about the brushstrokes, the textures of paint on the hair, and the background, the pallette, the composition, the expression of the sitter, but why? You can just go see it for yourself.

We are so lucky.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Best Men's Room in Washington DC

The National Gallery of Art, West Wing (the older, palacial one), has the best men's room in Washington DC. Mind you, I haven't seen them all, nor do I make a point of frequenting public restrooms, but this one, well... it's just beautiful.

Black marble, gleaming white sinks and urinals (not pictured), always clean, scented, elegant really.

I spent the morning in the Museum today (more about that) and as always, I was impressed by this men's room. So impressed I took this picture.