Two Takes on Lester Young … 2. Lester in Paris

It used to be there under Birthdays, some years at least. The daily listing in the paper, the Guardian, occasionally the Times. September 18th. Valentine Collins, jazz musician. And then his age: 27, 35, 39. Not 40. Val never reached 40.

So begins one of my short stories, Minor Key, concerning a British saxophonist hoping to keep his life – and his playing – together by accepting a residency in a Paris jazz club, at the same time that one his idols, Lester Young, is in Paris trying to do the self-same thing. Though to an outsider – or to anyone who cares, such as Val’s long-time friend Anna – it might not seem as if either man is trying very hard. Rather, the opposite.

Here’s a taste, involving both men …

“Minor Key”: First published in Paris Noir, edited by Maxim Jakubowski, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2007. Reprinted in Minor Key, Five Leaves, Nottingham, 2009. Reprinted in A Darker Shade of Blue, William Heinemann, London, 2010.

Two Takes on Lester Young … 1. Lester, Resnick & the cats …

Listening to a selection of recordings by Lester Young the other day reminded me of several occasions on which he crops up in my writing – quite frequently, in fact, in the Charlie Resnick novels – if not as frequently as Thelonius Monk.

Here’s one occasion, from the second Resnick novel, Rough Treatment

Lester Young photographed by Herman Leonard

Art Chronicles: Margaret Mellis & Melissa Gordon … & Janet Sobel.

Back down to Eastbourne yesterday to visit the Towner Gallery and get a good whiff of sea air. The weather was glorious, the ever-changing skies viewed from the train were breathtaking, and the gallery – some fifteen minutes walk from the station – was, from the exterior, its usual colourful, crazy self. In supposedly sedate Eastbourne of all places!

The artist whose work had brought us there was Margaret Mellis, whom we knew from her connections with St. Ives. It was there that she came under the influence of Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo …

Ben had been saying to me, “Do a collage, do a collage.” so I started in July [1940] and became completely obsessed with them.

The influence of Gabo especially, is evident, I think, in this piece from 1942, which is one of the early works in the exhibition.

Margaret Mellis : Collage with Red Oval, 1942

The majority of the work on show consists of a series of painterly constructions made from the driftwood picked up near Mellis’ home on the Suffolk coast, to which she’d moved in 1950 with her second husband, the painter Francis Davison. Once settled there she seems to have moved away from collage and back to her original love, painting – large landscapes and smaller studies of flowers – and it was only after Davison’s death in 1984 that she began making her constructions, prizing the driftwood for its texture, its jagged edges, its lingering elements of colour.

Margaret Mellis: Green Heart, 2002
Margaret Mellis: In the Night, 1993

Melissa Gordon’s work is displayed on roughly painted walls or on wire mesh and sections of chain link fencing. The inner space of the gallery is divided by tall strips of metal, framework for something waiting to be built. The resulting experience is like walking round a version of Gordon’s studio, busy, throbbing with ideas – large scale collages rich in colour, many referencing overlooked or excluded women artists. Elements of art history re-examined from a feminist viewpoint.

Melissa Gordon –Liquid Gestures, gallery view
Melissa Gordon : Liquid Gestures – gallery view
Melissa Gordon : Liquid Gestures; gallery view

One of the artists that Gordon chooses to highlight is Janet Sobel, who was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to the United States when she was fourteen. Married just two years later, she raised a family of five children, and it wasn’t, it seems, until she was in her mid-forties that she began to paint, progressing from figurative work into abstraction. She seems to have met with some early acceptance and recognition, exhibiting in a group show, The Women, at Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of the Century Gallery in New York in 1945 and having a solo show there the following year. She was one of the first artists to apply paint to the canvas with what might be called a drip technique, achieved by pouring or blowing paint through a glass pipette – a technique that, perhaps unsurprisingly, drew the attention of Jackson Pollock and the eminence grise of post-45 American art criticism, Clement Greenberg.

And yet … and yet … she seems to have been largely forgotten, erased from the abstract expressionist landscape. Helen Frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Lee Krasner, Grace Hartigan – those are the names we know, whose work is still frequently exhibited, and rightly so. But Sobel … it’s as if having admitted the bright few into the male-dominated club, enough was enough.*

Janet Sobel : Untitled, 1946-48
  • She is included, along with many others, greater and less-well known, in Women of Abstract Expressionism, edited by Joan Marter [Denver Art Museum & Yale University, 2016, from which I have taken some of the details above.

Art Chronicles: My Estorick Day Out

The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art is one of my favourite small galleries in London, easy to reach via public transport, rarely over-crowded, and with a very nice Italian café. https://www.estorickcollection.com

Their current show features all of the hundred-plus pieces in the collection – paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings – which was started by Eric & Salome Estorick in the period after WW2 and housed, as now, in a Georgian house off Canonbury Square in north London. Unsurprisingly heavy on Futurism, it features work by, amongst others perhaps less well-known, de Chirico, Modigliani and Morandi.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The overground train from Gospel Oak [80% masked, all socially distanced] got me to Highbury & Islington well before the gallery’s 11.00 a.m. opening and I remembered a rather nice coffee shop a short distance along Upper Street that I was introduced to by the writer John Williams – Benita Bakery. https://www.benitabakery.co.uk Rather nice being something of an understatement. The coffee was excellent as was the home-baked pain au raisin, the staff efficient and friendly, and I sat comfortably for twenty minutes or so, re-reading yet again Peter Temple’s excellent Truth.

Once the Estorick was open and I could begin to work my way through its galleries, I remembered that one of my greatest pleasures whenever I visit [yes, all right, apart from the café] is the interior of the building itself along with its furniture.

Of the work on display, if I had to choose one piece that was outstanding it would be Medardo Rosso’s 1895 sculpture, Woman with a Veil.

Made from melted wax over plaster, the woman’s face slowly emerges from beneath her veiled hat, as the note from MoMA, its usual home, suggests, “extending outwards to suggest the air and space around her” in the “dusty, bustling streets of nineteenth-century Paris.”

Also impressive were a series of small ‘still life’ sculptures, made by the artist Paul Coldwell during the recent lockdown, in dialogue with the etchings and drawings of Giorgio Morandi.

Beautiful work!

All in all, a really enjoyable visit, rounded off by lunch in the café, ‘home made’ tortellini followed by an truly excellent espresso – strong but not in the least degree bitter. Just the right accompaniment for a few more chapters of Peter Temple – a man who knew his coffee and so much else besides.

“The Maltese Falcon” 80 Years On

It seems not just unlikely but a little crazy that after 80 years [Yes, 80. Count ‘em] John Huston’s film version of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, re-released by the BFI, should be as absorbing and, in its portrayal of characters caught up in a maelstrom of sex, violence and betrayal, recognisable today. Only the stakes and the levels of betrayal have changed.

Huston wrote the script, sticking very closely to the original, so that much of the dialogue is more or less straight from the novel; one thing that is different, of course, what the film adds, is the fleshing out of the supporting characters – and in Sydney Greenstreet’s Kaspar Gutman, often filmed from below to emphasise his impressive girth, fleshing out is the appropriate term. He and his co-conspirator, Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, seem never to have quite decided if they are playing comedy or something altogether more dangerous and sinister, and its greatly to the benefit of the film that they manage both, simultaneously. 

Sydney Greenstreet & Peter Lorre

Their other function is to offset the stubborn seriousness of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, who, through it all and despite the temptations of Mary Astor’s femme fatale and a share of the wealth the Falcon represents, stays true to his code. 

“When a man’s partner gets killed you’re supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we’re in the detective business. Well, when of your organisation gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all around – bad for that one organisation, bad for detectives everywhere.”

And Hammett should know: he worked for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency before turning to writing.

The lines above are delivered to Mary Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy, whom Spade is convinced was responsible for murdering his partner, Miles Archer, whose body was found in an alley after being shot at close range.

“Miles hadn’t many brains, but, Christ! he had too many years experience as a detective to be caught like that by the man he was shadowing. Up a blind alley with his gun tucked away on his hip and his overcoat buttoned? Not a chance. He was as dumb as any man ought to be, but he wasn’t quite that dumb. …. But he’d have gone up there with you angel … He was just dumb enough for that. He’d’ve looked you up and down and licked his lips and gone grinning from ear to ear – and then you could’ve stood as close to him as you liked in the dark and put a hole through him with the gun you had got from Thursby that evening.”

Mary Astor & Humphrey Bogart

When, with increasing desperation, Mary Astor/Brigid attempts to use his feelings for her, his attraction to her, as the means for letting her, literally, get away with murder, he is adamant that whatever those feelings might be, he is neither going to be taken for granted, nor made a fool of.  “I won’t play the sap for you,” he says. “You killed Miles and you’re going over for it.” And, with macabre humour, “I hope they don’t hang you, angel, by that sweet neck.”

In the film’s final scenes, Brigid is taken into the lift by the police and we move to a close-up of her face behind the bars of the lift’s inner door, before the outer door closes, shutting her deeper inside and as the lift begins to descend – she’s, literally, going down, Bogart/Spade walks past towards the stairs with the Falcon in his arms.

If I do have a problem with the film, it’s quite believing in the Bogart/Astor relationship. David Thomson [no less] says “it’s the love story that is riveting” and refers to a “lovely crisscross of screwball and noir”, whereas it seems to me that description is far more accurate if applied to the other famous Bogart private eye film from the forties, Howard Hawk’s 1946 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, built as it is around the relationship between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which was first revealed on screen two years earlier in the same director’s To Have and Have Not

Here Bogart’s hero, Philip Marlowe, is as hard-headed and hard-hearted as Sam Spade where necessary – towards the film’s climax, and without compunction, he sends the gambler Eddie Mars off to a certain death at the hands of his own gunmen – but he’s also portrayed as someone who can charm the birds out of the trees and, in the famouses bookstore scene, the glasses from Dorothy Malone’s nose. And the scenes between Bogart and Bacall are brilliant examples of sex by inference and innuendo – each one sparking back and forth against the other. Look, speak but don’t – quite – touch. At least, not until the director has called ‘Cut!”

September Playlist

Another set of tracks thrown up by my excellent little Victure MP3 player on my morning walk on Hampstead Heath – warm this morning, without being overwhelming, and not an ominous cloud in the sky, unlike Friday, when they darkened, circled and finally unleashed a downpour that half-drowned me.

  1. Stars Fell On Alabama : Billie Holiday
  2. (If They Asked Me) I Could Write a Book : Ella Fitzgerald
  3. P. F. Sloane : Rumer
  4. My Next Thirty Years : Tim McGraw
  5. Never No Lament (Don’t Get Around Much Anymore) Duke Ellington & His Orchestra
  6. Late For the Sky : Joan Osborne
  7. Guitar : Tracey Thorne
  8. Hard Promises to Keep : Kimmie Rhodes & Willie Nelson
  9. She’s Got You : Rosanne Cash
  10. Parchman Farm : Mose Allison
  11. Old Time Feeling : Guy Clark
  12. Alison : Elvis Costello
  13. Boulder to Birmingham : Emmylou Harris
  14. So Cold in Vietnam : Johnny Shines
  15. What’s New : Louis Armstrong w. Oscar Peterson
  16. As Long As I Live : Rosemary Clooney w. Scott Hamilton & Warren Vaché
  17. For Everyman : Jimmy LaVave
  18. Central Reservation : Beth Orton
  19. Runaway : Bonnie Raitt
  20. Talkin’ at the Texaco : James McMurtry

Art Chronicles: Folkestone Triennial 2021

Bob & Roberta Smith : Folkestone Is An Art School, 2017

What better way we thought to mark the twenty fifth anniversary of our being together, being a couple, than a trip to the sea; and what better location at this time of the year than a visit to the Folkestone Triennial – fresh sea air, a host of seagulls, a curve of pebbly beach; fine views along the coast, all the way to the white cliffs of Dover; fish and chips, and art in a variety of modes just about wherever you look.

The train from St. Pancras was twelve coaches long [typing that reminds me of an old song from skiffle group days] and far from busy; like most of the other passengers we were wearing masks. Sarah had printed out a map offering three routes and we chose The Milky Way, which begins with the Bob & Roberta Smith above and a large Gilbert & George wall piece outlining police powers of dispersal which I, somewhat stupidly, took to be the real thing. I mean, the powers might well be, but not expressed in this flamboyant form.

We were soon on the site of a dismantled gas works, dominated by Morag Myerscough’s Flock of Seagulls Bag of Stolen Chips, an arrangement of colourful panels in the shape of the old gasometer, each one bearing the words of local residents in response to questions about the site – what they remembered and how it might be developed.

Morag Myerscough : Flock of Seagulls Bag of Stolen Chips, 2021

Follow the black path down into the now derelict site and you come to a large screen showing a film of people elegantly and enthusiastically doing a line dance the excellent guide book informs me is called The Slosh. This is Jacqueline Donachie’s joyful and captivating Beautiful Sunday, celebrating not only the former Gasworks social club, but also “all the dance floors of Folkestone past and present.”

Jacqueline Donachie : Beautiful Sunday, 2021
Jacqueline Donachie : Beautiful Sunday, 2021

The third piece on this site is Jyll Bradley’s Green / Light (For M.R.), 2014, which uses green acrylic sheets and aluminium poles to merge the shape of the demolished gasometer with visual memories of the hop fields the artist remembers from her childhood. Fascinating to look at and walk through, impossible – for me, at least – to photograph adequately.

At this point, not having had a coffee hit since our flat whites from Joe & the Juice at St Pancras station, and feeling in need of a caffeine boost, we detoured to The Old High Street, before rejoining the route at the harbour, site of the former roll-on-roll-off ferry ramp, strong winds stirring the waves beneath where we were walking and sending them splashing high over the harbour edge.

We walked along the Harbour Arm as far as the Lighthouse, turning back along Marine Parade, an expanse of pebble beach to our left and beyond it the light reflecting back wonderfully off the sea.

Did we have the energy to proceed further and discover Rana Begum’s half-mile of coloured beach huts? Sad to say, we did not. Not just our feet, but various joints were beginning to ache and the 5.00pm train home seemed an inviting prospect. Briefly taking in some of Patrick Corillon’s relic boxes on the way, we arrived back at the station with time to spare and so enjoyed a little rest and recuperation in a beautifully laid out park nearby.

All in all, a smashing day – even if, somehow, we managed to miss out on the fish and chips. Might just have to sneak back, find those beach huts, after all it continues till early November.

Nanci Griffith, 1953 – 2021

There used to be a record store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street, across the street from Selfridges, and if I were down in London from where I was then living in Nottingham, I’d make a point of calling in. Good and varied stock; friendly and knowlegeable staff. Can’t remember what it was called. But there I was – autumn of ’86? early ’87? – leafing through the racks of albums when one of the guys who worked there came over and asked if I was looking for anything special.

‘John Stewart?’

‘You’ve got the Kennedy one?’

The Last Campaign. Yes, I had.

‘Nothing newer than that, I’m afraid. But look …’ Reaching in amongst the albums. ‘If you like John Stewart, you might like this. Give it a listen.’

This was The Last of the True Believers by someone called Nanci Griffith. Presumably that was her on the front cover in a polka dot dress standing outside Woolworth’s, a fat hardback cradled in both hands. [On later investigation it turns out to be Donald Spoto’s biogrpahy of Tennessee Williams, The Kindness of Strangers.] And over to her right there’s a couple who might be just holding hands or maybe even dancing and the man is Lyle Lovett, surely?

I turn the cover over. Yes, Lovett’s on the record, singing harmony. And there are a couple of other names I know, Bela Fleck on banjo, Phil Donnelly, guitar. Plus another picture of Nanci Griffith with yet another book and this time it’s clearly Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, a novel I’d only recently read and liked a great deal. 

And as if that weren’t enough in the way of little markers of temptation, there’s a note saying the album is dedicated to Count Basie. Count Basie?

“This album is dedicated to the memory of Count Basie because he once made my clumsy feet dance upon the University of Texas ballroom floor as if on wing …”

Lovett, McMurtry, Basie – something interesting was going on here. Passing up the invitation to listen before buying, I paid up and was on my way. Perhaps I was in a hurry. It wasn’t till several days later, back home in Lenton, that I gave it a listen. 

Side one begins with The Last of the True Believers and Love at the Five & Dime – two tracks still high among my favourites. Maybe all the songs weren’t equally strong and in the higher register her voice took a little getting used to, but with the next album, Lone Star State of Mind, which followed soon after, I was totally hooked. Cold Hearts/Closed Minds; Ford Econoline; Trouble in the Fields. Great songs. She even manages to purge some of the sentimentality from Julie Gold’s From a Distance

It wasn’t so much later – the spring of ’88 and I was in New York, visiting a friend – when I noticed that Nanci Griffith was playing at a small club in Greenwich Village – I like to think it was The Bitter End on Bleecker Street, but can’t be sure – whatever it was called both Griffith and her band were on terrific form and what sounded very good on record was even more so live. 

I didn’t know then that not long after I returned to England she would be appearing at Nottingham’s Rock City. Monday, 2nd May, 1988. Tickets £5.00 in advance. [My friend, David Belbin, saved his ticket, which is how I know.] It was as good as New York had been, if not better. Another friend who was there that evening, the singer/songwriter Liz Simcock, describes it as a key moment in her life. 

Liz was with me again a few years later when Nanci Griffith and her Blue Moon Orchestra played a concert in London – and this is where the wheels of coincidence start turning – because who should she invite to join her on stage but John Stewart – over here on tour himself – to play lead guitar and sing duet vocal on Stewart’s song which closes the Little Love Affairs album, Sweet Dreams Will Come.

Just one more connection. The last time I saw Nanci Griffith was at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall and a change in the personnel of her band had brought in the English guitarist – and singer/songwriter – Clive Gregson. The same Clive Gregson who would record and tour with Liz Simcock not so many years later. 

Small world or what … ?

Art Chronicles : Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler : Cape Orange, 1964 (detail)

When I visited the Helen Frankenthaler exhibition, Imagining Landscapes, at the Gagosian Grosvenor Hill recently, it was just a few days short of the anniversary of the death of the poet Lee Harwood, and he was very much on my mind. In particular, I remembered a conversation we had back in 2009, when I had not long begun a course in History of Art at Birkbeck College and was in the process of writing an essay about Frankenthaler. Lee recalled visiting her studio in the mid-60s with fellow poet and art critic John Ashbery and seeing Frankenthaler working on a canvas held on a low frame close to the ground, pouring paint directly onto the canvas from a number of cans that might have been old coffee tins.

As Eleanor Munro further described in Originals: American Women Artists

She tacked a seven-by-ten foot piece of unsized, unprimed cotton duck to the floor and, working with oil paint thinned nearly to the consistency of watercolour, poured and pushed it in its meanderings. By this method, she … gained what watercolorists have always had – freedom to make her gesture live on the canvas with stunning directness.

It seems that she controlled and shaped the flow of the paint to some degree, using squeegees or sponges, so that the resulting painting was a mixture of accident and design, resulting, as another New York poet and art critic, James Schuyler, put it, “chanced beauty”.

As Frankenthaler herself said, “I think most of my accidents are predetermined accidents.”

The exhibition at the Gagosian – beautifully and spaciously displayed – has thirteen works, ranging from the early 1950s to 1970s and illustrating the artist’s progression from paintings which included some figuration to a purer abstraction – but an abstraction which never quite leaves behind a suggestion of landscape.

Helen Frankenthaler : Red Travels, 1971
Helen Frankenthaler : Cape Orange, 1964 (detail)
Helen Frankenthaler : Sphinx, 1976
Helen Frankenthaler : Sphinx, 1976 (detail)

Lee Harwood: 1939 – 2015.

I first came across Lee Harwood’s work in the 19th of the excellent Penguin Modern Poets series, purchased in 1971 when I was teaching English and Drama in Andover, Hampshire, and just beginning to send a little work of my own off to small magazines. Sandwiching, as it did, Lee’s poetry between that of the American John Ashbery – along with Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler, the best known of the New York Poets – and the British, but, like Lee, quite strongly American influenced, Tom Raworth, the selection opened me up to a new set of influences, a new range of possibilities.

From Andover, via Stevenage, to Nottingham, source of my first Harwood collection, The White Room, which combined some of the major poems from Penguin Modern Poets – “As Your Eyes Are Blue … “, “Landscape with 3 People”, “When the Geography Was Fixed” – with many others quite new to me and equally beguiling. Poems with stanzas underlined, scribbled down in notebooks, poems asterisked and starred, committed to memory. Poems I hamfistedly used as models, ending up with so many poor imitations. So much so that when I went as a participant to my first ever Arvon poetry writing course at Totleigh Barton in Devon – driving down from Nottingham in the midst of that amazing hot summer of ’76 in my green Citroen 2CV – the work I presented to the tutors at our first meeting must have read like the discards from Lee’s waste paper basket.

Without ever, I think, losing it altogether, that influence lessened with time. Truer to say, perhaps, I found a way of aligning it with that of Frank O’Hara, the two voices strongest at the back of my mind, until that day in 1993 when I first heard Robert Hass reading his poetry – but that’s another story.

I met Lee and we became friends …

Walking with Lee along the front by the sea,
ruins of the old West Pier, shift and change
of house fronts between Brighton and Hove.
Small cups of coffee, thick and black; we go out
for focaccia and cheese and bring them back

… and I was proud to publish three collections of his work with Slow Dancer Press: Dream Quilt – 30 Assorted Stories (1985); In the Mists – Mountain Poems (1993); Morning Light (1998).

Here is one of my favourites of Lee’s poems, “Gilded White”, the opening poem in Morning Light.

The last time I saw Lee we were both reading with John Lake’s jazz quartet at a small festival in Shoreham, not far along the south coast from where he lived. If there had to be a last time, I’m happy this was it, Lee’s voice soft yet clear over the shifting rhythms of the music, so clearly, so identifiably his.

In the September after Lee’s death, I was proud to be invited to read alongside Tom Raworth and others in a celebration of his life and work.

Tom Raworth
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