Sunday, November 30, 2014

Some thoughts on the passing of Jamie Powell.

The first musical environment I discovered in the Los Angeles area when I moved out here three years ago was a blues jam in Toluca Lake at a place called Lucy’s 51. It was led by Bobby Spencer and his band, and I found my trumpet to be welcome in that place. One of the leading lights of that session was an imposing gentleman who would lumber to the stage carrying a black guitar, situate himself on a tall bar stool, and from about a foot off the microphone, do some of the most gripping blues hollering I have ever seen anywhere. This was Jamie “Blues Boy” Powell, a six-foot-four powerhouse of blues music, one of the early indicators to me that yes, Los Angeles is a place where I might be able to live.
Jamie Powell has died and I find myself to be pretty busted up over the news. He was in the hospital and was visited frequently by close associates, and all of the reports were that he was looking well and in good spirits. I fully expected him to recover and I expected to play with him again. He didn’t, and I won’t.
Jam sessions are formed, they live and they die, and this one at Lucy’s is no more, but while it was happening, it had its own unique beauty. A real family developed in the time the session was happening, and I grew to be part of that family. When Jamie would sing and play, if I were there, he would always request that I join him on trumpet. That was a great honor and a pleasure, as I looked upon Jamie as a blues master, and someone who, as Bobby Spencer once put it, “comes from what he’s singing about.”
The most beautiful part of the Lucy’s 51 little chapter in Los Angeles music history was the advent of a young man named Ray Goren, then 12 years old, who played authentic blues guitar. He would come in accompanied by his father, and he would often share the stage with the great master, Jamie Powell. The two became dear friends and with the help of Bobby SpencerRetha Petruzates Tadg Galleran and many others, they formed the Generation Blues Experience, a blues band that featured the stately stage command of Jamie Powell and the ferocious guitar work of young Ray Goren. The project garnered significant attention and resulted in gigs from Los Angeles to Chicago and in between.
The picture I post here of Ray and Jamie says it all. It was a brief confluence of ostensibly different but at a core level practically identical trajectories of energy, Jamie’s and Ray’s, colliding at this jam session that happened for a period of time in Toluca Lake, and I was afforded a front row seat on it and the opportunity to play with both of these great musicians, one whose musical voice is just finding its wings, and one whose mastery and command shall soar no more.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Election Day Eve Ramblings...

I am preparing for a bad referendum on a pretty good president tomorrow. Rotten politics will be rewarded and a lousy selling job on the part of the administration will be manifest in some mid-term spankings in senate, congressional and gubernatorial races. Speaking of gubernatorial races, wait until you see the goober who might get reelected as Maine’s governor tomorrow. It’s could be a bad day for Maine Democrats.

But it’s going to be a bad two years of non-governance for America as well. The butt-hurt that is felt by the soon to be former majority in the senate is so acute and its lesson from McConnell and Boehner in blind obstructionism so recent that what’s good for the goose will surely be considered good for the gander, or turtle, as the case may or may not be. Expect congressional gridlock that will make the 101/405 rush hour intersection look like boarding school toilets on the night of a bean supper. Sixty is the new majority, and the GOP won’t have it.

Recent presidents, and indeed recent politicians rarely come from single parent households, rarely needed a student loan, and rarely haven’t made a long slew of really rotten deals. A thrice-elected senator, a kick-ass speech at the Democratic National Convention and boom, there’s your Manchurian candidate. He was too clean, and the machine did not like that a bit. A bit of grime is appreciated, a few skeletons in the closet, and it is best if they resemble little boys.

The more parts of your soul you’ve already sold, the more capitulation can be expected, so when this moderate political figure with a silver tongue, caramel skin, a clean slate and a decent jump shot came along, the DNC put a lot of its eggs in the Obama basket and Brand Obama pulled it off. The resentment throughout the blue blood arm of the Senate alongside that of the Adam’s Rib/Noah’s Ark crowd in the House made for strange bedfellows and pretty soon, the only way this brainy African-American was going to survive at all was by capitulating at every turn with the Republican Party, with giving the banks a pass in the housing collapse, at signing the NDAA without a sneeze, signing away habeus corpus for military detainees, and the list goes on.

But even these egregious betrayals, these phenomenal sellings-out on the part of our smart, level headed president failed to satisfy the beast. Obama was not sufficiently craven for the side the oligarchs have decided to back more heavily, and the Citizen’s United savaging of representative democracy and the McCutcheon final removal of it paved the way for the gerrymandering ad-blitz masterpiece currently being orchestrated by theKoch/Adelson/Bechtel/Halliburton economic dictatorship.

It is to our shame that the message of military and corporate beholdenness has been inculcated into the American pysche to the degree that it has. The real truth of the matter though is that we have in fact not as a nation fallen into line with this message, rather the fact is that the ones who have adopted it have done so passionately, and  the majority of people who haven’t fallen for it haven’t fallen out of bed on Election Day either, thereby ushering in rule by people who do not have their best interests at heart. Low voter turnout is the stated goal of the Republican Party, and with or without voting restrictions, to my amazement and unspeakable frustration, America's hoi -polloi, the rabble middle, my people, seem willing to oblige them.

The 5-4 lock on the Supreme Court that believes it to be appropriate that 42 individuals control one third of the totality of Political Action Committees' resources will ensure that one dollar one vote supersedes one man one vote for the immediate future. I don’t see a way out beside campaign finance reform, and that won’t happen without a Supreme Court change or a senate veto. A senate veto is out, so progressives are going to have to hold their noses and vote for Hillary in order to have a prayer of effecting some easement of the money, media and politicians triumvirate of internally competing criminality, and even that has to wait. I guess so. Unless the Bernie Sanders miracle happens and we have our next assassinated president and our next shot at the truth. In any case, we can't just give up or the super predators will keep swarming to this country's wealth like bugs to a summertime porch light. They're not going to quit, and we can't either. I won't if you won't.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Gas Wars

There is a profound geopolitical move on Saudi Arabia’s part right now that is resulting in lower gas prices, and countries with significant but not voluminous oil export capacity, like sanctions-crippled Iran, are the ones who are most feeling the pressure. Ordinarily when oil prices become depressed, Saudi Arabia cuts production and keeps prices high. Right now though, they seem to be in a frame of mind to toss a stink bomb into Iran’s tent. The question then, is why?

Of course there are the Sunni versus Shiite national profiles of Saudi Arabia versus Iran. Iran is one of only a few predominantly Shia countries, and Saudi Arabia is currently in a position to punish them for it. What’s the real problem though? It takes awhile to grok the difference between Sunni and Shia, why it matters, and why the level of commitment to the schisms is as great as it is.

Apart from the stylistic, academic, jurisprudence and other departures of the practice of Sunni versus Shiite Islam, the Shiite’s professed sole claim to direct lineage from Mohammed to the exclusion of the Sunni is offensive, and it is a gripe that has sustained itself through the oral tradition and manifest itself through the tradition of Civil War for centuries. The question then ought not be about why Saudi Arabia is trying to rupture Iran’s economy. The question instead is, why now?

One piece of circulating conventional wisdom is that Saudi Arabia is leveraging the economic sanctions that have been applied to Iran by the US over Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s production and markets are so hobbled by sanctions that even what little they can bring to market can only sell for half of what it did a month ago. So, the same pain that Saudi Arabia oil barons will experience from lower profits will generate a more acute blow to the Iranian economy than it would absent the US sanctions, thereby being a more efficient expenditure of resource.

The United States government, as a wholly owned subsidiary of the oil and munitions industries, has been doing what it can to add to the glut by practically fracking its Grand Tetons off. It’s easier to get a fracking license in Texas right now than it is to get proper voter ID. The reason for that is because what’s bad for Iran is bad for other oil-exporting countries that do not have oceans of the stuff lying around in easily accessible desert regions, Russia for instance.

Russia is as crippled by this current glut as Iran is, and for those Obama haters who think he’s a ninny and not up to playing big boy games, this is the one to watch. Russia and Iran are nasty little nests of capacity, resource and a cultural ability to withstand prolonged agony and inflict unimaginable pain on their enemies.

The US has pulled the strategy of Arab collusion to bankrupt the Russians before, playing footsy with Iran and Iraq while draining Soviet resources with a covert CIA war in Afghanistan in 1985. Add in the Cold War arms race, burgeoning secessionist movements among the Soviet protectorates, most notably the Baltic states, and come 1991 under Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s long-outlived reason for being collapsed.  You can bet that Russia is leery of this move right now and will in all likelihood react with some show of belligerent irksomeness.

In the late 1980s under the Reagan presidency, there was a more or less symbolic downward pressure on oil prices in letting James Watt savage the southwest and putting ANWR drilling back on the table, but the philosophy of the times matches the Obama response right now.  The administration, in cooperation with big bomb and big oil, is in search of anything to heighten a real or expected glut that will further damage the Soviet economy, and fracking is obviously it.

So yes, the final acts of a horror show are going on in Afghanistan and Syria right now, but the real war just may be happening at a gas pump near you.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Batting Out of My League

The wonderful musicians that seem to have accepted me in Los Angeles since moving here three years ago from New Hampshire continue to astound me. The resumes of the people I played with just this week include tours, recordings or individual dates with Ray Charles, Stan Kenton, Dr. John, Carlos Santana, Eddie Kirkland, Pete Anderson, et cetera. They are far more advanced than I, far more, and I’ll never catch them in terms of instrumental command, but the crazy thing is that I seem to fit. And I have a simple theory about why all of that is so, and it all comes down to listening.

One area of my playing that I have high confidence in, and that I focus on pretty intently is intonation. I almost always play in small sections, like tenor and trumpet, or at the largest, tenor, alto, two trumpets and trombone, and Ithink it fair to say that my trumpet sits in as fine a tuning within the chords as any of these very advanced horn players I stand next to so often.

The next bit is tone; the timbre of the sound. I have lately been cultivating a less eager and more relaxed sound, and I think it’s working. I still put a lot of air in the horn, as I always have; I definitely play loud, but I try to get as much color into the sound as I can. Another part of the tone has to do with having pulled my equipment together this year. I have a new model of Jupiter trumpet called the1600XO. It’s the most perfect horn for me I’ve ever owned, and I didn’t expect that to be so. I have owned a Bach, a Yamaha and a Stomvi, all of which are pro horns, and each of which brand is more traditionally prestigious than Jupiter, but this one suits me best out of all of them. Likewise, I stumbled upon on a beautiful Blessing flugelhorn. The equipment end of things is all about listening as well; not buying on price, cachet or brand name, but rather on fit, and that fit for me has been all about the sound.

Next is always being aware in the tune; at the top, at the turnaround, at the solo cue, at the end. I am never anywhere else but in the music. A lot of the playing here is pickup, small dates, standards, Motown, R&B, whatever. If I don’t know the lick, you bet I have it by the second time around, and I am not happy until I am fully in the section. Since the arrangements are being put together on the fly, I keep a close eye on whoever the leader on a particular tune seems to be, and it often changes tune to tune, even within the same tune once in a while, and they all have slightly different ways of telegraphing what they’re after. I pay strict attention at all times.

While I don’t have the stratospheric range or the fluent jazz improvising skills of some of my trumpet colleagues, I am welcome in a number of pretty high-quality playing environments, and it’s all because of listening, and also showing up on time and not being a dick.

Ebola Schmebola.

Last night I wrote about fear and politics, eventually aiming at the establishment and subsequent leveraging of the irrational fear of an Ebola outbreak in the US. It took until abut eight paragraphs in to really focus on the misplaced hysteria and the glee with which the media has fallen into line with the foolishness, as the essay examined fear-based politicking since 1990 in order to establish the premise. It’s a decent read if you’re up for it, but I’m sure a lot of people clicked out of it before getting to the discussion of the Ebola panic, so tonight, I’ll jump right into the virus that’s gone viral in America, Ebola.

The reason that no one in any city, in any town, in any rural setting has contracted the Ebola virus outside of a hospital is that it is only transmissible when an infected person is heavily symptomatic, and only when intimate contact with that person is made. The first case of Ebola in the US was a West African man who traveled to America to marry the woman he loved. He became ill and died, and two of the nurses ministering to him the hospital likewise contracted the disease. They have been sent to specialty hospitals and are expected to make a full recovery.

Understand that Ebola has never been passed from one individual to another in the United States outside of a hospital. Never. Not once. No city, now town, no rural setting. Two cases have been transmitted in the US, both in a Dallas hospital. If you are not a nurse and you live in the United States, you are in a zero percent risk group. If you are a nurse, you are in a virtually zero percent risk group. There are nearly three million licensed nurses in America. Two have contracted Ebola, both in environments in which their condition and the emergence of symptoms were monitored, ensuring them swift and effective treatment. Statistically, .00003% of nurses and .0000002% of Americans have contracted the disease. Remember also, no one who has ever contracted Ebola in the United States has ever died from it. No one. Ever. Nobody.

Here are some more statistics. In any given year, you have a one in 1,900,000 chance of being killed by lightning. Remember that no one has ever contracted Ebola and died in America, so it is impossible to calculate a comparative statistical likelihood against a sampling of zero. The likelihood of contracting Ebola then, is one in 175,000,000. If you are not a nurse, those numbers go through the roof. The obvious question then becomes, are you afraid of lightning?

Most people come inside during electrical storms. This reduces risk of getting hit by lightning greatly. Avoiding the feces, urine, blood and semen of people with 103 degree temperatures is akin to coming in out of the rain in a lightning storm. It reduces your risk immensely. I’d tell you an Ebola joke at this point, but you probably won’t get it. Not original, sadly, but quite astute, and I think, pretty funny.

The World Health Organization recently declared Nigeria to be Ebola-free. Zero instances currently. If Nigeria can win the fight with Ebola absent the benefit of the mighty Atlantic separating it from its source and a per capita income discrepancy of about a thousand percent, we have no reason to jump onto a panic bandwagon. The ridiculousness of this is mind-boggling.

Compare this to American reaction to the AIDS epidemic. It took Ronald Reagan six years and 20,000 deaths as president to even mention it, and this was a disease that could be transmitted when the carrier was asymptomatic. I don’t put this up as a model for how a leader and how a nation should react to a health risk, rather I use it as a benchmark for measuring the ludicrousness of the prevailing national attitude toward the non-outbreak of Ebola.

I suppose we get what we deserve, and as long as we breathe life into this non-story with the vigor we have been, news programs seeking your eyeballs will continue to serve it up as though it were an actual major story. It isn’t. It is a major story in West Africa, and if we want to ensure a world free of the virus, we would be committing resources to stop it in its tracks at the source. The best way to make it an actual story in America, which it currently is not, is to continue to sit on our hands and do not much about it, as we have been since the crisis erupted in West Africa.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Politics of Fear

Tonight’s essay is about that most prodigious of contemporary American commodities, fear. Fear is selling extremely well right now, and the American appetite for it shows no signs of abatement. And like all commodities, if someone is buying, someone will be selling.

Republicans tend to do well in atmospheres of national risk, so when those risks are at ebb tide, it is in the GOP’s electoral interests to identify and amplify existing or imaginary threats. We are just such a point right now, and with the midterm elections around the corner, we can anticipate a hysterical elevation of the pounding on the panic button.

When the "super predator" of the early 1990s was the boogieman, the enemy was domestic, visible and best of all, black. In 1989, a white woman was raped and badly beaten in Central Park, and a few days later, five black teenagers were arrested for the crime after their participation in a gang attack of other white victims.

This time, the pack numbered around 30. The Central Park Five were christened, and the word “wilding” became the new social fear’s rallying pole. The “super predator” had been identified; a movement of disaffected black youth that came from fatherless households, stultifying poverty, crack cocaine and a presumed absence of morality or conscience.

The “super predator” was an excellent source of American fear for a few years, but when this cancerous social movement never materialized as a consistent, sustained threat, hysteria subsided to the degree that the Clinton presidency became possible. Gore’s subsequent ineffectual presidential run was flabby enough to have allowed it to be decided by a kangaroo court in the state where his opponent’s brother was governor, and the George W Bush era was in place; but it had no idea where to go.

The GOP had what it wanted, an intellectually average, weak-willed and largely disinterested president who would do exactly what he was told was now ostensibly in charge. What was missing for the wholesale implementation of right wing policy-making was an event that would set the public on its heels and make it welcome a new era of combined colonial imperialism, isolationism, protectionism and xenophobia. What was needed was some fear, and it arrived on America's doorstep with a big red bow on it. I am not a 9/11 inside job theorist in the least, but I do recognize the savage, murderous religious fundamentalism of that day as being some version of Dick Cheney’s ultimate wet dream.

After 9/11, the formerly effective “super predator” domestic fear was now switched over to a foreign enemy, which was ideal. It dressed funny, spoke a language that was unmusical to the Western ear, and worshiped a God we didn't understand (though many religious scholars recognize Islam and Christianity to worship the same God, but through differing prophets, however that is fodder for another essay). The newer, better, stronger fear permitted the Bush administration to invade a country that had nothing to do with the mass murders of September 11, 2001. It fit some strategic interests in terms of ratcheting down more intimate control of a significant oil asset, so the sale was complete, and we were for the most part willingly led into the greatest foreign policy disaster since Vietnam on falsified evidence, in large part because of a prevailing environment of collective national fear.

The new hobgoblin is Ebola, a fear that eclipses domestic or foreign threats in that it is both foreign and domestic, and also something else altogether: it cannot even be seen. Really, Ebola is the ultimate fear product, and it’s a wonder someone didn’t think of it earlier. Everything is perfect about Ebola. First, its name. It sounds like Obama. You say Obama, I say Ebola, let’s call the whole thing off. Plus, it looks scary. The popular image of the Ebola virus resembles a pipe cleaner that has been used to ream out a festering flesh wound and then twisted into a grisly, poorly tied running bowline.

Anti-immigration sentiment and the invisible pathogen fear have now been bundled in this latest selling job, with the bonus of being able to point to deepest, darkest Africa as its epicenter. This fans the flames of the vast swaths of sub rosa racism across the nation, even maybe tickling memories of the “super predator.” White America’s racial mistrust had been on a decades-long frustratingly low boil for its adherents, and now there was a blasting cap that could blow the top off of it and almost lend credibility to it, very nearly eclipsing its general public unacceptability. Ebola.

The Ebola fear and the credibility that its pump-primed audience lends it is so phenomenally knocked out of balance that even the practically random idea of an overly porous Southern border being a potential source of new Ebola infestations had resonated with some component of the American public. There are African travel ban boosters, and even a few particularly unhinged voices advocating the “humane execution” of new patients and the establishment of the modern practical equivalent of leper colonies. 

To the administration's great discredit, it has done little in terms of adult supervision on this issue in articulating reality to a hysterical public that is apparently unencumbered by the facts. The administration is afraid to tell the public the truth about the insignificance of  Ebola risks in America for the simple fact that it is bad politics. A recent Harvard University poll indicated that half of Americans believe that an Ebola outbreak is likely in the United States. That is some breathtaking ignorance, and also, a stunning testament to the effectiveness of right wing propaganda in America. With the midterm elections in the balance, the administration is hesitant to tell half of America that it is being foolish. I don't mind a bit. 

To the CDC’s great credit, they have remained staunch and unwavering with the facts. The Obama administration should be ashamed of itself for its lack of courage in not adamantly communicating the truth of Ebola's threat, and the American people should be ashamed of itself for being so gullible. The two Ebola cases in the United States were transmitted during hospital care of an infected patient who had traveled to the US from Liberia. That first patient has died. No Ebola cases in the United States exist outside of these two cases. They are both in specialty hospitals and are expected to recover. 

West Africa has an Ebola problem. The United States does not. If the US had an interest in really stopping Ebola, its efforts would be profound in that area of the world. But it isn’t, and it won't, because that would allay some of the fear, and fear is far too precious a political commodity to squander on anything as politically inexpedient as science, medicine, intelligence and compassion.

Money in Electoral Politics

As the next midterm election draws closer, it is worth a moment of your time to consider the influence of corporate money on the United States election process.

The combined ten billion dollars spent in the 2012 presidential campaign was breathtaking indeed, and to many resulted in the perception that Obama’s campaign of ideas outstripped Romney’s campaign of craven corporate beholdenness, but really, it was just as much and perhaps even more a case of the Democrats’ money having been spent more wisely. Whereas Romney’s resources were in large part directed toward that old standby by of American brainwashing, television, the truth of the matter was that the Obama machine that had effectively engaged new media in 2008 was still exercising its advantage. As such the youth vote was already in place and had been undergoing fine-tuning in the years between the 2008 and the 2012 election. So money beat money, rather than ideas beat money is probably the more true assessment.

Not that television is a dead horse being beaten by out-of-touch coal-fueled think tanks. Its reach remains profound, and that fact is perhaps no better proven than by the popularity of the in large part demonstrably false broadcasts that flow around the clock from the Fox News Network, which has found a variety of demographics whose preexisting narratives were easily fanned from coals of discontent into flames of paranoia and irrational rage.

From phalanxes of aging, white, cigarette-smoking Hoveround operators who in between tokes from their Medicare-issued oxygen tanks wheeze their objections to wasteful and undeserved government programs, to responsible gun owners to whom a Democratic desire to make sure mental patients can’t walk out of a gun store with an AR-15 has been ginned into the suggestion that “jack-booted government thugs” were coming to take their guns away. A more time-tested piece of proof of television’s powers of persuasion can be seen in the massive reduction of smoking in America subsequent to television advertising of the Class A carcinogen having been made unlawful in 1970. For good or ill, TV works.

The notion that money rather than ideas beat money can be seen in Obama’s staunch alignment with Wall Street over the course of his presidency. The puppet mastery of the president is probably most evident in his administration having given the banks an utter pass in the housing collapse in which thousands of American lives were plunged into financial ruin, while the lending institutions whose wild west methodologies precipitated the collapse not only didn’t see a single executive conviction for this galling malfeasance, were actually bailed out by the taxpayers whose lives they destroyed.

So whether it is on the web or on television, expect an avalanche of bullshit to be coming your way, even in the midterm. The money machine doesn’t stop with senators and congressional representatives either. Everything from school boards to dogcatchers, thanks in no small part to the Citizens United decision, are fodder for financial perversion of election cycle perceptions, usually in the form of personal attacks and cheap shot gotcha “journalism.” The two-party system in America leaves little room for discernment and distinction, but there is some.

I urge you to look past the grainy photographs with the Vincent Price voice-over telling you about how your candidate kicks dogs for fun in his spare time or that he wants to take your guns away so you can’t shoot him when he comes to kick your dog. It takes more time to do your own research, but it’s the only research that’s reliable. I have seen so many smart people post stupid memes on Facebook, letting individuals with half their brains and none of their integrity do their thinking for them. Please don’t perpetuate that, and more importantly, don’t fall for it either. A modicum of exploring government websites for voting records and position papers can orient you to some enlightening details that may get you thinking that maybe you’ve been voting against your own interests for quite some time.

Before signing off tonight, I’d like to stress further that seemingly less consequential elections, those of small town mayors, town council members, city managers, school board representatives and more are the twigs, branches and leaves that photosynthesize political power that ultimately makes its way to trunk and the roots of our rapidly disappearing democracy. Like the great Tip O' Neil said, all politics is local. 

Call it a plutocracy, an oligarchy or a economic dictatorship, one man one vote has to a large extent been supplanted by one dollar one vote. It’s not too late, but the machine is firmly in place and will require a revolution at the ballot box to begin with, and relentless, daily activism in its wake, along with vigilant rejection of easy information that coddles and distorts rather than challenges and explains.