I watched the movie Born to Be Blue this weekend, the stylish film depicting a specific period in the life of jazz trumpet great Chet Baker. Rather than try to chronicle the entirety of Baker’s life and career, the movie focuses on a brief period when the brilliant, yet tragic musician recovered from an altercation with his drug dealer that left his mouth damaged, prompting a period of rehabilitation of both his playing and his heroin addiction.
In the lead role, Ethan Hawke shines by capturing the nuances of Baker’s voice and singing style, one which conveys the intimacy and loneliness that defined Baker’s music and life. Hawke gives an indication of his approach to the performance in an interview with AOL. “If you get locked into an imitation, then you’re not emotionally connecting to the material yourself. The real dream is to tip your hat to the iconography of it – the look, the sound…but also bring a piece of yourself. Finding the voice for me was so important. There’s something so fragile about it.”
Hawke indicated that he used Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Johnny Cash as a roadmap. “He doesn’t really sound like Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, but he embodies the mood and tone and experience of listening to Johnny Cash. If you put the albums side by side there’s no comparison – one’s Johnny Cash and one’s Joaquin Phoenix, but in the movie I was very moved (by the performance). He got inside the music in a way, and that’s what Robert (Budreau – Director) challenged me to do.”
In an equally compelling interview in the series called Hollywood Masters, Hawke revealed that he finds fascination in movies that are not focused on plot but rather those that capture the human experience, with the passage of “time” as the substitute for a clear storyline. Such an approach lends itself to a certain realism that’s missing in the “cookie-cutter” style of filmmaking. Certainly one of the most ambitious examples of such an effort came in the movie Boyhood, a 12 year effort where Hawke once again worked with his frequent collaborative partner, writer/director Richard Linklater.
The underlying message here as I perceive it from the movies and the interviews that I’ve watched is that everyone is looking for magic in life, but the magic is life itself. This brief scene from Boyhood, an exchange between Hawke as the father and his young son Mason captures the underlying sentiment of the film, and of Hawk’s outlook on filmmaking:
Dad? There’s no like… real magic in the world, right?
What do you mean?
You know, like elves and stuff. People just made that up.
Well, I don’t know. I mean what makes you thinks that, that elves are any more magical than something like…like a whale?
You know, I mean, what if I told you a story about how underneath the ocean, there was this giant sea mammal that used sonar, and sang songs, and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car? And you could crawl through the arteries? I mean, you’d think that’s pretty magical, right?
Yeah. But like… right this second, there’s like no… elves in the world, right?
I attended the U2 concert in New Orleans on September 14, 2017, a stop along their Joshua Tree tour that celebrates the 30th anniversary of the album’s release. The concert was everything you’d imagine from the iconic band. The band’s greatest hits are ideally suited to serve as arena rock anthems. Songs start modestly and build to a dramatic crescendo, provoking frequent “hair standing up on your arms” moments – Simple chords, a distinctive sound punctuated by the cutting riffs, harmonics, and delay effects of The Edge’s guitars and Bono’s vocals, and a stage presence that demonstrates that the band is comfortable in their skin as the greatest rock stars of their generation.
The musical excellence is greatly enhanced by the impact of technological advances of the concert experience. The stunning graphics canvassing the screen that traverses nearly the entire width of the Superdome floor provide a sense of the greatest live music video ever seen and heard. The band has the resources to take those technical capabilities to another level, superimposing live shots of the band members visually enhanced over pre-recorded graphics ideally suited for and meticulously synchronized with the music.
Add to all of the above, the backdrop of the Louisiana Superdome – a venue of last refuge for desperate Hurricane Katrina survivors, the band’s participation in the post-storm revival as well as their obvious affinity for the city and it’s musical influences, and you have the recipe for an unforgettable entertainment collaboration between artist and audience.
As I left the stadium and approached the bottom of the ramp near street level, I looked up at the mammoth building structure that seems even more colossal against the backdrop of the downtown structures that punctuate the Superdome’s surroundings. I watched as the sea of contented fans filtered out onto the streets. I couldn’t help but think what it must be like for the band members to drive up to a venue of this magnitude knowing that enough people to fill the building to the rafters are willing to flock to see them. Success at this level is a unique combination of talent, charisma, hard work, dedication, faith, luck, and other elusive intangibles.
It’s also a tremendous responsibility and privilege to attain success at this level in such a high-profile profession. As fans and as citizens, we can only hope that the musicians who achieve that level of fame and success serve as deserving stewards of those rewards.
The return of the New Orleans Saints NFL football team to the Superdome in 2006 after the horrific events of Katrina was as cathartic an experience as any of the post-storm recovery activities. While a halftime concert might seem merely symbolic to outsiders, the citizens of the city can attest to the impact of the moment and the affinity for the anthem “The Saints are Coming” crafted by Green Day and U2 for that night. I couldn’t help but look up at the ceiling of the Superdome occasionally and think back to the darkest days when rain and a glimmer of light penetrated the weather torn panels of the roof. It gave the concert a sense of triumphant return to the city – so much so that a friend described the night as spiritual in nature.
The Edge conceived the founding of Music Rising, an effort to ensure the replacement of musical instruments destroyed in the storm to those in the Gulf Coast region. The organization continues to this day, administered by the non-profit Mr. Holland’s Opus, as the mission has expanded across the country to those affected by natural or economic disasters.
But the band’s concern for humanity is of course as global as their musical acclaim. Bono is one of the most well-known and accomplished philanthropists and social activists that the music industry has ever known. His ability to reach out to a diverse group of leaders of religious organizations, government, business, entertainment, and media has garnered him recognition as an effective agent of global change. His understanding that polarizing criticism rarely brings about the long-term, effective reforms that partnerships and outreach can achieve has distinguish him among celebrity social activists. Though too numerous to mention, some of the issues that Bono and the band have taken on include world hunger, HIV/AIDS, women’s rights, third world country debt relief, disease, and fair trade.
You’d think that those tackling such daunting issues might convey a somewhat pessimistic tone. Yet U2’s message articulated by their leader throughout the concert was one of hope and possibilities, prefacing a signature song among many with the message, “There’s nothing that we can’t accomplish, if we work together as ‘One.’”
The band U2 defines what it means to be rock superstars aware of their impact as global citizens and consciously attempting to live up to that responsibility. And New Orleanians as much as any population are thankful for and connected to their generosity, sincerity, and devotion.
The brilliant jazz composer/pianist/vocalist Dave Frishberg once wrote a song titled “My Swan Song” in which he ruminates about the challenge of continuing to come up with new song ideas. Frishberg sings, “It’s the final cry of a dry imagination.”
If you’ve ever put pencil to staff paper or simply tried to hum along a new melody to a few chords on your acoustic guitar, I’m sure you know the feeling. I broke out of a personal songwriter’s slump late last year and pumped out a few tunes. Here are a few things I learned that might help you if you’re struggling with composition:
Rewriting is Easier than Writing
Paul McCartney woke up in the middle of the night with the idea for the song “Yesterday.” But as he tells the story, he used the title “Scrambled Eggs” instead. He was simply trying to pen lyrics to match the song so he wouldn’t forget the idea, knowing he’d rewrite later. Don’t get hung up on the song trying to find the perfect lyrics. Write something with roughly the appropriate number of syllables and go back and rewrite later.
I’ve written and published 2 books and probably 60-70 songs. In both cases, I’ve found that it’s easier to get ideas out and edit later than to try to make them perfect from the outset.
Capture Every Idea
I have a voice memo function on my smartphone, and I’d imagine most of you do as well. Every time you have an idea, even a couple of lines or a few chords with a melody, capture it. You never know which one can blossom into a full song, but if you plant enough seeds, one will grow into something beautiful.
Walk Away and Come Back
Sometimes a little time away can recharge your batteries or help you look at a song or an idea differently. I’ve had songs that I walked away from because I wasn’t pleased with them. After some time away, I had new ideas – change the tempo, change a few chords, or reverse the order of the verses.
There’s a Reason They Call it the “Creative Process”
In Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, he speaks of how the artist doesn’t take criticism too personally. They understand that they aren’t defined by any particular piece of art, but rather each work is part of a creative process. They’ll wake up tomorrow and go to work again. Some days/works will be better than others, but each is a step forward.
Write Some Bad Songs
Don’t be deterred because something you wrote doesn’t necessarily live up to your standard. Go ahead and see the work through to completion. Maybe you’ll revisit and improve the song later, but maybe not. You’ll feel better about yourself and your creative abilities if you see ideas through to completion every once in a while, even if you’re not completely happy with the song, rather than just a collection of half-finished songs that leave you frustrated.
Change Your Routine
I typically start composing by strumming chords on the guitar (or piano), then I’ll try to find melodies that fit, and finally lyrics to match the song after the chords and melodies are complete. But I was in a rut using that technique for a long time. So I just started writing lyrics one day. It unlocked my muse, so to speak. Shortly thereafter, I returned to my usual methodology, but changing my routine got me back in a rhythm again, and the ideas started to flow again.
Learn Something New/ Listen to Something Different
Paul McCartney speaks of a Minor 7th chord at the start of the Bridge of the song “From Me to You” as a real breakthrough. Remember that many of the early songs of the Beatles like “Love Me Do” were very simplistic musically and the band was influenced by many of the 3-chord songs of early rockers like Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. McCartney also suggested to Producer George Martin that they try a piccolo trumpet solo in the song “Penny Lane” after seeing a BBC performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto.
When you consider how far the Beatles took popular music from the late 50’s and early 60’s to albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and Abby Road, it really puts their accomplishments into perspective. If you’re a rock or pop songwriter, listening to new genres might not turn you into a jazz or classical musician, but it might make you better at what you do.
Expand your music vocabulary to give you a broader foundation of ideas to draw from.
In 2008 I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Fountain for the cover story of Where Y’at magazine. One of the most accomplished musicians in the history of New Orleans, Pete passed away this morning at the age of 86 (Photo credits Carlton Mickle Photography).
It was the mid-1970’s, and the applause from the audience was electrifying. The band members’ smiles hinted of both joy and respect for their dazzling colleague. What I remember most was the reaction of the host, iconic Tonight Show legend Johnny Carson. For the 30 years that the show ran, Carson had a distinct affinity for great comedians and great musicians. His reaction to this performance, one of roughly 60 Tonight Show invitations that Pete Fountain would ultimately oblige, was genuine. Johnny Carson, a man who you would think had seen it all, was quite simply blown away.
For more than a half century, Pete Fountain has been the face and the sound of traditional New Orleans jazz, though he has taken that genre to another level. His alluring demeanor and engaging smile give audiences an uncanny sense that Fountain is amenable and approachable, and his music has that same endearing quality. As clarinetist Tim Laughlin states it, the first time he heard Pete Fountain play, “It was like every note had a smile on it.”
I sat down with Pete Fountain and his agent/son-in-law Benny Harrell recently to reflect upon an extraordinary career, one cultivated at the “Conservatory of Bourbon Street,” as Fountain describes his music education. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of what he owned and heart bypass surgery sidelined him shortly thereafter, Fountain is living proof that the greatest fuel for resilience is the satisfaction of a life spent in the pursuit of that which you love.
Fountain recalled with fondness his memories of the Broad Street Carnival Club from the age of 8 or 9. The group marched every Mardi Gras and planted the seed that would inspire him to form his own Mardi Gras marching group years later, the Half-Fast Marching Club.
Fountain’s father played drums and a little violin, but leaned more toward country music. His love for music was infectious however, and he took satisfaction in Pete’s progression as a student of music. “He never did push me, but he enjoyed me playing,” said Fountain.
A testament to his rapid progression in music, Fountain was invited to play in the Warren Easton High School Band even before he was old enough to attend the school.
Fountain describes his style as a cross between New Orleanian Irving Fazola and Benny Goodman. One of his earliest breaks was his stint with Lawrence Welk’s band from 1957-59, a move that granted him the recognition that would pay dividends for years to come, especially in terms of album sales. “It was a good thing for me,” he said. “From then on it just blossomed.”
After two years in North Hollywood, however, the pull of the Big Easy began to overwhelm Fountain and his family. He had three small children, he and his wife Beverly were homesick, and the inevitable return to New Orleans followed.
Fountain had a live music club at 800 Bourbon St. throughout most of the ‘60s, and he played a frenzied schedule of three shows a night, six days a week. He later moved to 231 Bourbon St., a club that held nearly 300 people, allowing him to pull back to a more manageable two shows a night.
Harrell added that Fountain and trumpet player Al Hirt had a great mutual respect for each other’s talents. If Fountain finished his set first, he would often head down to Hirt’s club to join him on stage, and vice-versa.
“If they [musicians] could keep up with Al Hirt, they could keep up with anybody, because he was a player. He was a gorilla,” Fountain said with a laugh.
It was a magical time for jazz on Bourbon Street, an era of “good feelin’,” as Fountain recalled.
In 1978, Fountain moved to his club at the Hilton Hotel, a venue that seated 500 people. Throughout that era, Fountain’s guest appearances on the aforementioned Tonight Show helped increase Fountain’s visibility and drive album sales. Fountain has released an astounding 96 recordings during his career.
Now semi-retired, he plays Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, MS.
Harrell is a first hand witness to the love and admiration that Fountain’s fans share with him after each show, as he accompanies Pete.
People come up to him afterwards and say, “You brought me back to another time,” said Harrell of Fountain’s fans. “People are so gracious with their memories and what Pete’s music has meant to them.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is simply a nostalgic encounter, however. Fellow musicians affirm that Fountain still has the magic in his clarinet.
Laughlin is one of those musicians, and perhaps the person best qualified to articulate Fountain’s musical impact. Laughlin was invited to join Fountain’s band at Jazz Fest a couple of years ago, an invitation that he was honored to accept. In the same manner that Fazola influenced Fountain, jazz historians might view that Jazz Fest performance as a symbolic “passing of the torch” to Laughlin.
“There’s no better clarinet player in the country now,” said Fountain of Laughlin. “He’s all New Orleans. Whenever I have the opportunity, I like to bring Tim on stage. They love to hear both of us playing.”
Laughlin’s first encounter with Pete left a lasting impression on him. “The first time I heard Pete (age 9), I knew he didn’t belong in any category like traditional jazz or any other category for that matter,” said Laughlin. “He wasn’t trying to be a ‘throw-back.’ It was such a great, unique, and swingin’ sound, but I knew he was from New Orleans.”
“The thing I do try to copy is his professionalism and class,” he added. “He comes to play… not to tell jokes and stories between songs. His charm onstage is his clarinet and the things he does with it. I simply loved hearing one great tune after another. That’s really respecting your audience. It’s what they came to hear.”
“Once you get to know him, you get the feeling it’s not all about him,” said Laughlin. “It’s about the music. Anybody that knows him feels lucky to know a legend and such a good and decent man.”
Fountain’s Half-Fast Marching Club is approaching 48 years together, with 200 members and a 17 piece band. “He lives for Mardi Gras,” said Harrell, adding that passing up this Fat Tuesday ritual is one bit of doctor’s advice with which Fountain simply can’t comply.
Fountain was also recently inducted into the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, LA, which focuses on the history and culture of the Louisiana-Mississippi Delta region’s music. He was honored with an exhibit dedication and a star on the museum’s “Walk of Fame,” with the induction taking place at the Seventh Annual Delta Music Festival on April 5th.
As for the upcoming Jazz Fest performance, Fountain said that Laughlin will likely join him again. In terms of what the audience can expect, the answer was simply, “A great band and happy music.”
I read a business book once that said (paraphrasing) that increasingly in the 21st century, rather than competing against each other to see who can climb the wall of success first, businesses will join hands and scale the wall together (I apologize for omitting the reference, but now that I’m AARP eligible as of last week, I suppose instances of memory loss will become more frequent). The metaphor essentially emphasizes the importance of collaboration in our economy, for a number of reasons – ease of purchase from the customer’s perspective when multiple businesses offer a wider array of services, project teams with a broader perspective generating ideas, greater geographic reach, cross-training, etc.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of collaboration is the ability to reach out to new customers by sharing customer and contact lists. The introduction to new customers through your business collaborators brings a sense of credibility.
Take the case of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.
The duo’s collaborative effort, the recently released Cheek to Cheek album has hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. According to USA Today, the joint jazz album sold 131,000 copies in the week ending Sept. 28 (Nielsen SoundScan), making Bennett, 88, the oldest living act to earn a No. 1 album.
Lady Gaga’s youthful fan base and her pop success might have given older generations pause when she crossed over to jazz standards, categorizing her as simply the next passing trend in the pop world. But Bennett’s seal of approval provides a reason for mature fans to take a closer look and listen with an objective ear. Conquering different genres can be a key to longevity for many in the music industry (Elvis Costello, Christina Aguilera, Elvis, Sting, Pat Benatar, to name a few).
Likewise, Lady Gaga’s participation brings a continued sense of “hipness” to jazz standards, and exposes Tony to a new generation of potential fans.
Have you thought about collaborative partners for your business or artistic endeavor?
In increasingly turbulent times globally speaking, a few briefs thoughts today.
Regardless of the nation in which you live, the one from which you came, your political affiliation, or your religious beliefs, there is a troubling trend – Our world seems to be losing tolerance – an acknowledgement that contrasting viewpoints can come from reasonable, intelligent, good-hearted people.
Musicians and comedians are often capable of incisive, honest commentary on the human condition, made more palpable masked in their chosen artistic medium.
A little insight from a great songwriter on the aforementioned topic:
“Now with the wisdom of years, I try to reason things out
And the only people I fear are those who never have doubts
Save us all from arrogant men, and all the causes they’re for
I won’t be righteous again, I’m not that sure anymore”
~ Billy Joel from “Shades of Grey” off of his album River of Dreams
Actor Hugh Laurie, star of the hit TV show House, is quite an accomplished musician. For years he admired and emulated New Orleans pianists and their sound – Dr. John, Professor Longhair, and Allen Toussaint to name a few. He recently traveled to our great city for the first time to see and hear the sights and sounds of the Crescent City first hand, a pilgrimage that culminated in a PBS special/concert and his first album. Laurie collaborated with Vocalist Irma Thomas (The Soul Queen of New Orleans) and the aforementioned Allen Toussaint).
Here’s a brief excerpt that includes a few kind thoughts regarding New Orleans.
“I feel like this is a city that doesn’t fear death. It’s looked death in the eye. Los Angeles on the other hand – everybody’s absolutely terrified. Terrified of getting old, terrified of wrinkles, terrified of dying.
“Music fills the streets and clubs of New Orleans like nowhere else. It’s a city that sings itself to sleep at night, and sings itself up in the morning. I’ve never known a place or people who so massively exceeded my expectations. It is more than I hoped it ever could be, and I hoped for quite a lot. This has been my Jerusalem.”
I recall watching Amy Winehouse perform during the GRAMMY awards in 2008, and I watched her get showered with awards and accolades shortly thereafter (5 GRAMMYS that evening). There were 2 things that were plainly obvious to those inside and outside of the recording industry that night: 1) This is an immensely talented performer with enormous upside potential 2) Winehouse was on a dangerous path and perhaps the tip of a downward spiral, given her problems with addiction and the underlying emotional issues that all too often derail the careers of emerging artists. I couldn’t help think that there was something terribly afoul and enabling with the idea of heaping praise on a woman in such peril after she declared in song, “They tried to make me go to rehab, I said, no, no, no.”
We speak of the power and merits of artistic expression in this forum a great deal, but the story of Amy Winehouse is a cautionary tale. Exposing children to music and the arts provides a valuable outlet for their emotions, and is a tool in teaching them to live productive and healthy lives – but it’s just a start. It’s important to realize and acknowledge its limitations as well. I’m no expert, but I think it’s safe to say that Winehouse’s underlying issues could not be resolved by a piano, guitar, or microphone.
I’ve spoken to music therapy experts, and they’ve echoed these sentiments as well. We must be realistic and practical in espousing the power and benefits of music and music education. Those who oversell its potential provide ammunition for the skeptics and sabotage the scientific advances made by the true practitioners of music and sound therapy, arts integration, and arts education in general.
I have a certain affinity for the music of the early 80’s and the dawn of the music video era. The new wave era on balance will not be remembered for the virtuosity of the musicians nor the sophistication of the music, though it’s noteworthy to mention that The Police, Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Pretenders, and The Tubes were born of that time. Yet there was an energy and excitement that captivated the music world back then.
The disco age was dead. Punk rock had shaken the music world out of its doldrums, but had faded as brilliantly as it had emerged. More importantly, music has the ability to connect us to other times in our lives.
I’ve also had the privilege of speaking to music therapists regarding the connection between music and mood. In the simplest sense, even a non-trained musical ear knows that certain (major) chords or sounds seem “happy,” while others (minor chords) evoke sadness or are more appropriate for horror movies. Of course, their science goes well beyond those basic theories, allowing breakthroughs with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, Down Syndrome, and Autism.
That brings me to yesterday.
I was having a bad day – No particular tragedies, just a series of life’s little aggravations. Then, while strolling through the grocery store, a tune played from the speakers above. The recognizable intro to “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles. It was the 1st video ever played on MTV back in the day, and the video production levels were so primitive that there was an innocence that permeated the music videos of that era. The song “Our House” by Madness followed. From what moment forward, my day and my attitude changed for the better.
Here’s a suggestion if you’re an iPod or .mp3 player owner. Rather than playing your favorite albums and songs, set your player to randomly select songs. You’ll find great tunes you’d forgotten about – what I like to call hiden gems. Here are a quick 5 that I found on my iPod recently: