Murmurations, Months, Masters
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned some of the newsletters I especially enjoy, so let me take the opportunity today to mention some journals. I have always had an particular love of what are often called quarterlies, even if they don’t appear precisely every quarter. Quarterlies don’t, because they can’t, deal with the newest news: they offer more considered, more reflective responses to the world we live in. And who doesn’t need more of that?
Here are some I am particularly devoted to, and am proud to have written for:
- Our sponsor Comment features, in a remarkably wide range of ways, “Public theology for the common good.”
- The New Atlantis is devoted to promoting “a culture in which science and technology work for human beings”
- The Hedgehog Review “offers critical reflections on contemporary culture: how we shape it, and how it shapes us.”
- The Point is “a magazine of the examined life.”
I would strongly encourage you to subscribe to the print editions of these journals: all of them, being beautifully designed and featuring elegant type generously spaced, are a pleasure to hold and to read. Even though they have nice websites also, they’re best experienced in codex form, by a person whose internet-connected devices are well out of reach.
My friend Richard Gibson on friction writing: “Frictionless environments give us the false sense that we can stay on top of things all by ourselves. But against that often destructive delusion we can cultivate a healthy sense of humility about what we know, what we ought to share, when we need to speak up.”
Another friend, Austin Kleon, has an excellent post on our peculiar system of months.
Art Tatum was one of the greatest musicians, in any genre and on any instrument, of the twentieth century, but he is tragically little-known today. Partly this is because he died in 1956 at the age of 46; partly because he was a thoroughly reticent person about whom we know almost nothing; and partly because, as Terry Teachout has commented, he made it all look too easy:
There was nothing to see in person, just a burly, impassive man who sat quietly at the keyboard, never moving his hands a millimeter more than necessary. In one of the few surviving film clips of Tatum’s playing, a 1954 TV performance of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” that can be viewed on YouTube, you can see for yourself what Jon Hendricks meant when he said that on the bandstand, Tatum looked “like an accountant — he just did his work.” Close your eyes and it sounds as though someone had tossed a string of lit firecrackers into the Steinway. Open them and it looks as though you’re watching a court reporter take down the testimony of a witness in a civil suit.
It is often said of Tatum that he was so technically proficient that he couldn’t resist showboating, embracing extravagance, and there’s something to that — though I don’t think “showboating” is the right term. I think Tatum’s understanding of harmony and musical structure was so profound that he delighted in deconstructing songs and then reassembling them in funhouse-mirror style. For instance, in his dizzying version of Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” he keeps veering off into “Way Down Yonder on the Swanee River” and has to navigate his way back to the tune he’s supposed to be playing. This kind of thing is always impressive, often jaw-droppingly so, but for some listeners (not me) it can be alienating.
My favorite Tatum performance — and indeed my single favorite jazz recording, with the possible exception of Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” — is his comparatively restrained, perfectly balanced, infinitely musical 1954 recording of “She’s Funny That Way.” He recorded the song several times — Tatum basically played nothing but standards, in which he found an infinite treasure chest of musical ideas — but the recording I’ve linked to is, for me, the very pinnacle of jazz piano.
Tatum begins with a quiet and pretty straightforward statement of the melody — with just extraneous rumblings from the lower end of the keyboard — followed by a slightly elaborated restatement of it. And then, about a minute in, his left hand finds a classic “stride” rhythm and off he goes. It’s sheer joy from there on, as that bassline keeps swinging time while Tatum’s right hand plays variation after variation on the melody — it’s like most of the Goldbergs condensed into three minutes. Then he eases back into the reflective, meditative mood with which he began, closing up shop with a tiny but delightful coda: just at the instant you think he’s going to play the resolving chord, he darts in with one last quick variation on the melody — and that sees us off with big smiles on our faces. It’s an absolutely perfect performance. I have been listening to it quite regularly for forty years, with no diminishment of pleasure. I’d ask to have it played at my funeral except I’m the only one who would fully appreciate it and I probably won’t be listening. Unless, of course, I’m listening to a live recording....
One more twentieth-century master: Czeslaw Milosz, born in Lithuania just a few months after Art Tatum was born in Ohio. Here’s a poem from his great poetic sequence “From the Rising of the Sun” — a magnificent passage in which he remembers himself as a boy in Lithuania:
My generation was lost. Cities too. And nations.
But all this a little later. Meanwhile, in the window, a swallow
Performs its rite of the second. That boy, does he already suspect
That beauty is always elsewhere and always delusive?
Now he sees his homeland. At the time of the second mowing.
Roads winding uphill and down. Pine groves. Lakes.
An overcast sky with one slanting ray.
And everywhere men with scythes, in shirts of unbleached linen
And the dark-blue trousers that were common in the province.
He sees what I see even now. Oh but he was clever,
Attentive, as if things were instantly changed by memory.
Riding in a cart, he looked back to retain as much as possible.
Which means he knew what was needed for some ultimate moment
When he would compose from fragments a world perfect at last.