The Mingus Excerpt

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“The Mingus Excerpt" shows a sweet side of Charles Mingus that few people saw or could imagine. After all, his nickname was “The Angry Man of Jazz," and most biographical material supports that designation in one way or other. But for all his bluster and bombast, there was also generosity and kindness. This story describes his unlikely friendship with Steve Reichman, a young Jewish kid from the suburbs who eventually committed suicide in Morocco, at the age of 19. His parents' frantic need to understand what happened led to Mingus's surprise gift for the memorial, and ultimately to ...


Fred Hersch's "My Coma Dreams" World Premiere

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There's much to say about the extraordinary My Coma Dreams, the new multimedia piece that describes the medically induced coma experienced by pianist/composer Fred Hersch in 2008. But three days after its world premiere at Montclair State University's Kasser Theater, I'm still looking for the right words to describe it. It seems that my usual critic's concerns keep dissolving under the visceral pull of the thing.This 70-minute piece grew out of eight dreams Fred remembers having during that awful time. For two months he was kept alive with nine tubes and a flank of machines while doctors hunted ...


The Continuing Adventures of the Mad Musician and the Bipolar Genius

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For those interested in the continued rumors about bipolar geniuses and mad musicians, here's the latest installment of my campaign against those popular myths.

This article appeared in the May/June issue of The National Psychologist , the 19 year-old newspaper for independent psychology practitioners that prints what's really going on in the trenches, as opposed to the “party line" of the American Psychological Association. It is reprinted here with their permission.

Great talent always comes at a great price. To be a genius means to suffer--if not the chronic paralysis of depression, then surely the emotional ...


Gene Lees, 1928-2010: Someone Who Lit Up My Life

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On April 23, 2010 we all lost Gene Lees, the incomparable jazz writer, historian, and lyricist. I also lost an irreplaceable mentor and friend.

Unlike the great pianist Eddie Higgins--who died criminally unsung in 2009--Gene was granted a New York Times obituary. Published on April 27, it was written by Peter Keepnews, who attributes Gene's contentiousness to his strong and thoroughly informed opinions, rather than the inherent pugnaciousness that others have emphasized. While we all had to wrestle with him, I found such sparring to be noisy but ultimately harmless, like puppies in a box. In any ...


The Definitive Monk Bio: So, Was He Crazy, or What?

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Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, by Robin D. G. Kelley, was published in the fall of 2009.

It arrived surrounded by buzz that, since the author had unprecedented access to the Monk family, he could finally answer those lingering questions about his “mental illness"--as in, was Thelonious schizophrenic, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive, or something else?

The book is dense, with 588 pages of meticulous detail. After a few chapters I decided to scan the index for mentions of bipolar disorder, and judge the relevant evidence for myself. (In the process, I was ...


Jeff Hamilton: Sound Painter

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If Jeff Hamilton isn't the world's greatest living drummer, he's on the short list for coronation. For the past five years, he's been in Modern Drummer's top five (#1 in 2004 and 2006), and was #4 in the most recent Jazz Times readers' poll. Whether you think such polls reflect true quality or just recent visibility, the undeniable fact is that Hamilton is a reliably creative, classy and swinging drummer whose live shows contain a nearly balletic grace that few performers can match. (For a small glimpse of his uniquely elegant moves, check out his two videos on


Fred Hersch: Celebrating Life in a Musical "Leaves of Grass"

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I attended the sold-out March 11, 2005 performance of Fred Hersch's (see April 2005 interview) Leaves of Grass at Zankel Hall, a relatively new and wondrous performance space in the belly of Carnegie Hall. This Palmetto CD has already been reviewed by two AAJ colleagues, and since I largely agree, I'll leave the parsing of the disk to them and focus myself elsewhere.

For once, I deliberately left my notebook at home. Already somewhat familiar with the CD, I wanted the performance to wash over me without the distraction of analytic scribbling. And so it did, bathing me ...


Musical Valium: 10 cds To Put Your Mind at Ease

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There's not much good news out there lately. Even if you believe we'll be Kerryed out of this economic and global mess, that won't start for another ten months. In general I pay minimal attention to the news, figuring that if anything really terrible happened my friends would tell me, if they had enough time before fleeing the area. And I never watch TV news ("we distort: YOU decide"), although I know some people never miss it. Thrown into a panic by scary teasers like “mayonnaise makes you sterile -- film at 11!" they feel compelled to get the whole ...


A Psychiatric Christmas Poem

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The Only Normal Family in America

Twas the last shrink convention and all through the house Not a Skinner box was stirring With chimp, rat or mouse.

The speaker that day had the focus of all The seekers of truth who had crowded the hall. Their coffee and danish consumed straight away, They sat back to hear what the guy had to say.

I've found it!" he shouted (a tad too informal), The find of the century: a family that's normal!"

The ...


The Jazz Times Halloween Scare

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In October of 2002, Jazz Times ran a cover story called “Hard Bop, Hard Time: Music, Madness and Roy Brooks. “ It was good timing, since the article was as dark and scary - and as full of fantasy - as Halloween. It warns that jazz musicians are especially prone to developing bipolar “disease," a “treacherous" mental “illness" that destroys creativity and careers and kills people. Using the sad story of drummer Roy Brooks as his outline, writer Jim Dulzo paints an overgeneralized picture of the dangers facing creative people, misrepresenting the nature of bipolar diagnosis and treatment. ...


Jazz, 9/11, and Healing

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It will take years for all the shuddering to settle down. While scrambling to find something positive in the immense tragedy of September 11, many writers have predicted that we'll lose our appetite for cinematic violence and fiery death, now that their ugliness has become so personal. In fact, Schwartzenegger's latest bang-bang was recently pulled from release, advertising in general has toned down, and even TV and radio stations have altered their programming, afraid of offending our newly-enhanced humanitarian sensibilities.

One horrible day has suddenly exposed just how disrespectful our media habits are to the human spirit: how ...


Clinging to a Myth

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I've learned that nobody wants to hear that musicians are sane. The idea of the dissipated and doomed musician is so deeply embedded in our culture that, after 18 months of intensive hunting, I still can't find a mainstream publisher willing to challenge it in print. A few visionary editors have recognized the pernicious nature of the myth -- and how logically I've taken it apart -- but they can't override the marketing people who believe that creativity = madness and want to keep it that way.

My favorite rejection, so far, is from W. W. Norton: “If ...


Critical Conditions

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One of the most heinous creatures to stalk the nightmares of a jazz musician - next to the club owner and the wedding guest who keeps requesting “Proud Mary" - is the critic. Even the word is aversive: sharp and insect-like - cri-TICK - it evokes the specter of some prowling bloodsucker, draining people of confidence (and future bookings), and getting more power-bloated with each victim.

Of course, this may be a slight exaggeration. Despite rumors to the contrary, most critics aren't bent on destroying the reputation and livelihoods of musicians they don't happen to like, and recent ...


Jobim, Master Therapist

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Antonio Carlos Jobim (January 25, 1927 - December 8, 1994)

The day after Jobim died I was in a store, trying, as usual, to ignore their Muzak. Suddenly they started playing “Ipanema" in one of those murderously perky arrangements. It was so awful, especially coming after all the recent gorgeous airplay of his work, that I didn't know whether to laugh or cry -- “some tribute!" I thought. But then I realized that it truly was: it was proof that Jobim's music had thoroughly pervaded our culture, from the top all the way to the bottom.

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