Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Tribute to Charlie Haden



When I heard that Charlie Haden passed away, it didn’t make much of an impression.  While I’m a fan of jazz music, I wasn’t familiar with his name.  Then, I read a 2006 interview with him on the Democracy Now news program.   To say the least, I was impressed.

Charlie Haden was born around the year 1938 in Shenandoah, Iowa.  His parents traveled the country performing what he called “hillbilly” music.  At the age of 22 months, Haden’s mother discovered her son could sing and he began performing with his family.

When Haden was 15 he contacted the disease polio.  The disease affected his vocal cords and his singing career was over.  However, he continued to listen to all kinds of music on the radio. 

Jazz

Then, he attended a jazz concert in Omaha, Nebraska.  There he saw Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Lester Young.  After hearing that music, Haden made the statement “That’s what I want to do.”  He would become one of the premier jazz bass players.

He gave up a scholarship offer from Oberlin Conservatory and went to a school in Los Angeles where he could study jazz.  Haden also wanted to go to L.A. because his favorite musicians were based in the city.

Haden eventually began to tour with Art Pepper’s band.  While on tour he met Ornette Coleman.  At the time, many musicians didn’t understand Coleman’s free form style of jazz.  Charlie Haden was immediately drawn to Coleman’s music and performed in his group for most of his career.

Opposition to the war against Vietnam

During the years of the U.S. war against Vietnam, Haden formed a band called the Liberation Music Orchestra.  Haden’s idea was to take some of the songs from the Spanish Civil War, and use those arrangements in songs in opposition to the war against Vietnam.  One of the songs in this album was dedicated to his hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara titled, Song For Che. 

Haden recruited several musicians who also wanted to make a statement against the war.  In one rehearsal he invited veterans of the Spanish Civil War to attend.  These veterans fought for the elected Spanish government and against the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who was supported by Adolf Hitler.

When Haden was ready to record the album, record executives were worried about the word “liberation” that was the name of his group.  They felt that this name sounded like the Vietnamese National Liberation Front. 

Haden countered their argument with the point that the revolutionaries who established the United States were also about liberation.  He then said that if he did not use this name another group would.  These arguments convinced the record executives to go along with the Liberation Music Orchestra.

Solidarity with African liberation

In 1971 Haden’s wife had triplets.  During that same time, Ornette Coleman asked Hayden to go on a Newport Jazz Festival tour of Europe.  Haden was reluctant to go on the tour because of his new daughters, but he eventually agreed.

One of the stops on this tour was in Portugal.  At that time the Portuguese dictatorship of Marcelo Caetano was at war against the liberation movements in their African colonies. 

Haden asked a journalist what would happen if he made a statement in Portugal in support of the African liberation movements.  The journalist replied that Haden could be shot or arrested.            

During the concert in Portugal, Charlie Haden made his dedication to the Black peoples’ liberation movements in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau.  Then, he performed his Song For Che.  The authorities stopped the concert and the Portuguese political police eventually arrested Hayden.

The Portuguese authorities asked Haden to sign a paper denouncing his statement at the concert.  He refused.  Haden didn’t know if he would ever see his family again.  There was a guard with a truncheon who was hitting this weapon on his other hand.  This was a clear message that Haden was about to be beaten.  Then, fortunately the U.S. cultural attaché to Portugal intervened and sent Haden to the airport where he left the country.  

In 1974 there was a revolution in Portugal and the Caetano dictatorship was no more.  The new Portuguese government wrote about Haden’s experience with the police in the school-books studied by children.  This new government invited Haden to return to Portugal.  He performed a concert where 40,000 people attended yelling his name “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie.”

Iraq and South Africa

During Washington’s war against Iraq Haden put out another recording in opposition to that war tiled, Not in Our Name.

During a concert in Cape Town, South Africa, a member of the African National Congress approached Haden.  This person listened to Haden’s music during the apartheid years when this person lived in a one-room shack with eleven children.  Hayden’s music inspired this person to read and find out about the history Haden performed in his music.  This person eventually joined the ANC and spent time in prison for his political activities.  Today, this person is a minister in the new government of South Africa.

Haden concluded his interview with the following words.  “You know, it’s up to us to try to make a difference in this world and try to make this planet better to live for all the human beings and stop the cruelty and the devastation that’s going on, you know, and have a great place.

I don’t think better words could have been spoken.  Oh yes, I will be looking into the music of Charlie Haden. 


If you are interested in reading or listening to the Democracy Now interview with Charlie Haden you can see this at the link below:

http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2014/7/12/rip_jazz_legend_charlie_haden_watch

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Seemingly Impossible Dream that is Indeed Possible



Working people imagine what it would be like to win the Power Ball.  Winners of the Power Ball might have access to hundreds of millions of dollars.  With access to this amount of money, winners are able to buy whatever they choose.  These winners can travel to wherever they want.  They can also live in whatever part of the world that might suit their fancy.  While this might be a pleasant dream, working people understand that winning the Power Ball is a totally unrealistic goal.

My dream is a bit different from winning the Power Ball.  My dream is that everyone in the world will have a lifetime right to all the things we need, and many of the things we want.  These would include a lifetime right to: food, clothing, housing, transportation, communication, education, health care, and exposure to cultural activities such as music, art, sports, dancing, film, as well as the theater.

Many will argue that this is also a totally unrealistic goal.  I do not agree with that perspective.  Clearly, there are enough resources in the world to eliminate poverty.  Clearly there are billions of working people and farmers who would like nothing better than to work towards making this a better world.  So, what is the problem?

Today politicians, corporate officers, as well as the editors of the media argue that there simply isn’t enough money to improve the standard of living in the world.  These people forget what money actually is. 

Money is only a means of exchange that is used to purchase commodities.  Saying that there is an insufficient amount of money to make this a better world is not an argument that the resources do not exist to accomplish this goal.  Concretely, how can resources be used in different ways to make this a better world?  We can begin by looking at the cities.

Today, most cities throughout the world contain a collection of skyscrapers.  These skyscrapers house enterprises like corporate headquarters, banks, advertising agencies, insurance companies, and corporate law firms.  These enterprises do not directly contribute to producing the goods and services that I listed above.  How could this change?

Today nations commonly import food, clothing and electronics from around the world.  The skyscrapers can be transformed into places that grow the fruits and vegetables we all need and want.  Light industries like garment and electronics can also be housed in these buildings.  This transformation would clearly greatly reduce the cost of transporting these commodities.  Eliminating the so-called need for corporations, banks, advertising agencies, and insurance companies would also greatly reduce the production costs of commodities.

Transportation

Today working people need to purchase expensive automobiles, as well as pay for insurance, maintenance, fuel, and parking.  We do all of this so we might sit in traffic jams on our way to work.  There clearly is another way to organize a traffic system, especially when it comes to the cities.

High-speed rail lines have the potential to transport people to and from the cities much more efficiently than the current system.  Rail is also the most energy efficient means of transportation, as well as a system that is considerably safer than the automobile. 

We might keep in mind that every year there are tens of thousands of fatalities due to auto accidents.  If someone chose to have a few drinks, they could get home safely on a rail car, and not be concerned with loosing control of an automobile.

Communication

Today politicians routinely promote patriotism.  Oftentimes politicians use these patriotic sentiments to argue for war. 

In a future world, a rational government would encourage communication between people from all over the world.  While the online service Facebook is a profit making enterprise, this so-called service demonstrates how in a future world there might be a regular communication between working people all over the world.  Instead of looking to compete with citizens from other nations, we might work towards improving the standard of living for everyone, no matter where they live.

In a rational world, we would be working considerably fewer hours than we work today.  This would mean that we would have a lot of time to travel.  Imagine living in various areas of the world for extended periods of time and establishing friendships with the people who live in those nations.

Education

Today medical experts diagnose children with Attention Deficit Disorder, and prescribe drugs to treat this problem. 

Many of these same children look forward to receiving presents of video games during the holidays.  These children have no problem with paying attention to these video games, and we might wonder why experts diagnose these children with A.D.D.

Clearly we can imagine how the educational system in this country might be made fascinating for young and older students.  Imagine leaning mathematics through the study of music, dance, sports, and art.  Imagine learning about the sciences by planting crops in the ground and using those crops to prepare food, clothing, and furniture. 

Yes, we have the potential to make education fascinating for the young and old.  However, in today’s world governments choose to close down schools and make lesson plans even more alienating for students. 

Health Care

Today health care is a system reserved for those who can afford it.  The Department of Agriculture estimates that one out of every six people in this country do not have enough food to eat.  Clearly, a rational government can make vast improvements in the health care system by simply feeding people.

A healthy diet as well as exercise throughout one’s life, will certainly contribute to better health.  However, there is another ingredient that I believe needs to be mentioned.

Imagine that a rational government might actually work to make our jobs less alienating.  Imagine that we might only need to work twenty hours per week.  Imagine that working people had real control over our working conditions. 

All of this would reduce the stress that causes so many problems in the world today.  Without the kind of stress we currently experience, we might wonder why citizens of a future world might ever want to use addictive drugs?

Housing

Today the cost of housing is astronomical.  Interest rates on mortgages as well as taxes mean that people who purchase homes routinely pay for that home several times before it is paid off.  The alternative is to rent, and the cost of renting might be prohibitive.  These conditions explain why many working people are homeless, or feel the need to live with their parents for extended periods of time.

In a rational world everyone would have the lifetime right to a quality place to live.  Homes would be made to last.  Maintenance workers might be responsible for all repairs needed for the home, as well as the housekeeping duties.  While this work might sound alienating, these workers would only need to do their jobs for twenty hours per week.

Conclusion

My opinion is that these ideas demonstrate that when people who have power argue that there are no resources to improve our standard of living, they simply aren’t stating the truth.  We live in a society dominated by the political economic system known as capitalism. 

This system means that the number one priority of society is profits for corporations.  Corporate officers are legally bound to maximize profits for shareholders.  Government officials routinely give exorbitant financial incentives to some of the most affluent people in the world.  People who purchase hundreds of billions of dollars in advertising effectively control the press.

These policies have resulted in a reality that can only be considered absurd.  Eighty percent of the population in this country own no more than six percent of the financial assets.  A mere 50,000 people own and control the lion’s share of wealth in this country.

In the year 1929 the stock market crashed and the world entered a period of nine years of depression.  This depression wasn’t caused by a lack of resources.  After the depression, resources suddenly appeared.  However, only when the labor movement went on a strike wave, did the standard of living improve.   

The near financial collapse of 2008 demonstrates that the people who have power have learned nothing since 1929.  Once again the government has supported corporate interests demanding that the standard of living of working people continue to deteriorate.

I’m writing this column on the Fourth of July.  This is a national holiday celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  This declaration argued that: “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.  But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”   

The only way to escape the present reality is to replace the current government with a workers and farmers government that makes the human needs of people its top priority.  With this kind of government the world that I imagined is a real possibility.  If the world continues to support the status quo, we can only expect our standard of living to continue to deteriorate.

Steve Halpern is the author of the novel Looking Back From 2101.  This novel transports a Jewish factory worker into the year 2101.  In this future world poverty and discrimination are no longer a part of the human experience.


Friday, June 27, 2014

El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico




A review of their performance in Philadelphia

A few weeks ago Judi and I attended a performance of the Salsa band El Gran Combo at the Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.  I’m a fan of the musical style known as Salsa, but was not aware of this group or its history.  My ignorance of El Gran Combo might sound strange, since the group has been performing for over 50 years and has sold over 100 million recordings.

The language used in this concert was mostly Spanish, as it should be.  My Spanish isn’t very good, but the music transcended any difficulty in understanding the words.  The audience waved Puerto Rican flags throughout the performance.  However, we discovered that nations throughout Latin America were represented. 

While I was unaware of the songs El Gran Combo performed, the audience frequently sang along with the band.  The overall atmosphere in the concert hall, I can only describe as electric, with people frequently dancing in the isles.

After attending the concert, I asked myself a basic question.  Why was I completely unaware of this group that had sold over 100 million recordings?  Another question I asked was, why was I completely unaware of the name Hector Lavoe before seeing the film about his life titled El Cantante, starring Marc Anthony in the title role?

The Latin Tinge

I began to answer this question by reviewing a book a read a while ago titled The Latin Tinge – The impact of Latin American music on the United States, by John Storm Roberts.  This book looks at how Latin music has been influencing the music in this country for over 100 years. 

Roberts argues that the nation most influential to Latin music has been the sister island to Puerto Rico, which is Cuba.  Roberts goes so far as to argue that the Argentine Tango was influenced by Cuban musical styles. 

Here in the United States the band known as Machito’s Afro-Cubans influenced both Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.  Machito (Frank Grillo) and his band-leader Mario Bauza invented a style of music known a Cuban Jazz.  For about twenty years Machito’s Afro Cubans rocked New York City at a dance club known as the Palladium.

We might also consider that the music of Cuba and Puerto Rico has inspired dynamic dance styles.  People growing up on these islands routinely dance with a style designed to flow with the music.  Many people in this country can learn much about dancing from the people who were raised on these islands.

Back in the 1940’s Black Jazz musicians from this country didn’t openly identify their music with Africa.  Machito’s Afro-Cubans not only identified with Africa, but they introduced the African conga drums to this country.

The premiere recording of Cuban Jazz was titled Tanga.  When Dizzy Gillespie first listened to this music he was blown away.  At the time, Gillespie felt that the Jazz rhythms he was familiar with were rather monotonous.  This changed when he listened to the Cuban rhythms.  Mario Bauza introduced Gillespie to Chano Pozo, a Cuban percussionist.  Pozo had an important influence on Gillespie and they collaborated to write the music for Gillespie’s composition Salt Peanuts and Manteca. 

Bo Diddley was one of the pioneers of the music we know as Rock and Roll.  When we listen to Diddley’s music, we hear the basic Son, which is the beat that drives Cuban music.

Recently there was a film produced by Fernando Trueba titled Calle 54.  This film documents recent developments in Latin Jazz.  Many of these relatively new voices come from the Bronx, in New York City. 

While many people in this country are ignorant of Latin music, this history demonstrates that the Latin Tinge has always been a part of the musical styles of this country.  While other musical groups might be paid a lot more, my opinion is that El Gran Combo is clearly equal to some of the best groups I have seen.  Seeing this group introduces many to the same rhythms that have inspired some of the most influential musical artists.