My friend and Italian translator, Seba Pezzani, whom I first met when I was invited to take part in dal Mississippi al Po, the festival of blues and (crime) writing which he organised annually in Piacenza, Northern Italy, asked me if, for an article he’s writing, I would contribute a short piece about the current Coronavirus situation, in addition to recommending a book to read in these anxious times.
Here’s the former, written in response to last night’s clapping in support of the NHS workers …
At first it was a dull, persistent clanking we were slow to recognise, someone in the street outside striking the base of a saucepan with a metal spoon. Inside the house, we stopped what we were doing and checked the time: sure enough, eight o’clock, and the front door opened to hear, haphazardly at first, then more and more in unison, people at their windows, on their balconies, clapping, clapping – older folk, younger, children – and from more distant houses and busier streets, bells ringing, car horns hooting, all coming together in a raucous, joyous cacophony of sound, of noise, of celebration at still being alive and giving thanks to those who were working full out to make that possible. And, as the sounds finally faltered and faded, I thought about those people trapped, as we are, in lockdown in other countries – Italy, Spain – where this nightly ceremony started – realising, in a way, how this has brought us together, while recognising that applause aside, there’s little most of us can do safe this: hope, wait, perhaps pray; wash our hands.
And here, without apology for drawing attention to this book and this writer again, is my recommendation …
One of the books I go back to from time to time, when I’m wanting to read something that rings true; that, in simple, hard-wrought language, is a believable and moving expression of the straightforward but surprising goodness of ordinary people, holding out a hand to those in extreme need, is “Plainsong” by Kent Haruf, the story of two elderly unmarried brothers, small-scale farmers, who, against all the odds, take in and care for a young woman, pregnant and homeless, and not so very long ago a child herself.
I believe the book piece may appear as part of Seba’s article for Il Giornarle and the piece about clapping on Globalist.it
* Apologies to Shirley Ellis, whose 1965 version of this Lincoln Chase song, is surely the best
Here they are, not necessarily the best, more my favourite books, films and art exhibitions of the year; the ones that gave me the most pleasure, the ones I remember most positively and fondly.
Fiction Bernardine Evaristo : Girl, Woman, Other
Mary Gaitskill : This is Pleasure
Lavinia Greenlaw : In the City of Love’s Sleep
Tayari Jones : An American Marriage
Liz Moore : Long Bright River
Rosie Price : What Red Was
Singers/musicians autobiography/memoir Lily Allen : My Thoughts Exactly
Liz Moore : The Words of Every Song
Amy Rigby : Girl to City
Tracey Thorn : Another Planet
Rebecca Goss : Girl
Lavinia Greenlaw : The Built Moment
Tony Roberts : The Noir American & Other Poems
Dirty God : Sacha Polak For Sama : Waad al-Khateab Foxtrot : Samuel Maoz Hale County This Morning This Evening : RaMell Ross
second string … Last Black Man in San Francisco : Joe Talbot Marriage Story : Noah Baumbach Peanut Butter Falcon : Tyler Nilson & Michael Shwartz The Shoplifters : Hirokazu Koreeda
Harold Gilman – Beyond Camden Town : Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham
Mona Hatoum – Remains To Be Seen : White Cube, Bermondsey
Albert Irvin & Abstract Expressionism : GWA, Bristol
Lee Krasner – Living Colour : Barbican
Joan Mitchell : Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
Helene Schjerfbeck : Royal Academy
George Shaw – A Corner of a Foreign Field : Holbourne Gallery, Bath
Felix Vallotton – Painter of Disquiet : Royal Academy
Luigi Ghirri – Cartes & Territoires : Jeu de Paume, Paris
Dave Heath – Dialogues with Solitude : Photographers’ Gallery
Chris Killip – The Last Ships : Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle
Don McCullin : Tate Britain
Known pleasures aside – Tate St. Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, plus exhibitions at Penlee House [Stanhope Forbes, some very fine paintings indeed] and The Exchange in Penzance; excellent food at Mackerel Sky in Newlyn and the Porthmeor Café in St. Ives – our recent brief trip to the south-west yielded up newer delights, from a blowy ride on the open top deck of the A17 bus from Penzance to St. Ives to the deliciously straightforward and tip-top food at the small café at Penzance’s refurbished Jubilee Pool. Just three days but worth it.
Following on from my last blog post about the current Royal Academy exhibition devoted to Abstract Expressionism, I thought I’d draw the attention of interested parties to a piece by Peter de Bolla, which has just appeared in the current (15th December) issue of London Review of Books.
What, asks de Bolla, if painters resolutely turned their backs on representation, and, in its stead, embraced the concept of abstraction, were they actually going to paint? A question which, for most of the American artists showing at the RA, required some kind of negotiation with Cubism, Surrealism and the European avant-garde.
The artists who, for de Bolla, came up with the most effective answers were, predictably enough, Pollock, Rothko and Clifford Still, and he is excellent, I think, in his analysis of their practice and its results. More surprisingly, and, for me, pleasingly, is his conclusion, in which he singles out Joan Mitchell’s Mandres, as the late flowering apotheosis of the genre.
In Mandres (1961-62) Joan Mitchell created as astonishing summation of the various answers that had been proposed to the question of what the hell to paint.This is Abstract Expressionism’s greatest late work. Form, structure and content are interrogated and transformed by so vast a repertoire of techniques of pigment application that you lose count …
… There is no painting I know like it. I doubt there could ever be one.
This was the photograph, seen on a postcard I suppose, that first brought Eugene Smith to my attention. The late 70s it would have been, possibly early 80s; I was living in Nottingham and working sporadically towards a Ph D thesis on post-war America, film noir and noir fiction. It barely got started, never mind finished. But if it had and if the published version had needed a cover, then this would surely have been a contender. Extremes of black and white, car titled at an angle in a narrow lane, Freudian analysis of dreams, the letter that never came or perhaps it did, the postman who rang twice. How much more noir can you get?
What I didn’t know at the time was that this was just one of 13,000 photographs Smith took in the course of the two years he spent documenting the city of Pittsburg for an assignment that was meant to take three weeks. There followed another two years in which he sought to print and lay out the resulting work. Not a man to do things by halves. Neither a man to suffer the needs and admonitions of picture editors at magazines like Life gladly. They wanted him to hand over the negatives, take his pay cheque and move on to the next job; he wanted to supervise – if not undertake himself – every step of the process, printing, lay out, everything.
The other thing I didn’t know, before seeing Sara Fishko’s recent documentary, was the extent to which Smith worked on images during the printing process; those bright white horizontals along the car’s bumper, for instance, the flare over the offside wheel, almost certainly the result of a skilful application of ferricyanide bleach.
Fishko’s film, The Jazz Loft According to W. Eugene Smith, which I saw as part of the London Jazz Festival, spends sufficient time on Smith’s earlier work – photo essays for Life magazine, including the remarkable photographs from his time with American forces in the South Pacific (where he was seriously wounded) towards the end of World War Two – for it to be clear why he was considered one of the masters of his field.
But Smith’s battles with those who sought to publish his work never seemed to become easier and his own perfectionism ensured that each new venture took longer and longer, expanding to the point where publication was all but impossible. Joining the Magnum Photo Agency doesn’t seem to have helped a great deal and earning a living to help support his family – he and his wife had four children – became more and more difficult. In 1957, he left them (to fend somehow for themselves apparently, the film isn’t clear about this) to live in a dilapidated loft high in a run down building in New York’s Flower District and there he stayed for seven years, sharing the premises with the composer and arranger Hall Overton and the artist David X. Young.
This was – this became – the Jazz Loft. Musicians would come by after work – which often meant around three in the morning – and jam. Beboppers, Dixielanders, Mainstreamers; Zoot Sims, Pee Wee Russell, Thelonious Monk et cetera. And Smith, more obsessive than ever, recorded everything. Recorded on film: 20,000 photographs taken inside the loft, 20,000 more looking down onto the street from the fourth floor window. Recorded on tape: close to 2,000 reel-to-reel tapes capturing not just the music that was played, but concerts from the radio, conversations, telephone calls.
Beautifully put together, Fishko’s film uses a succession of images and sounds, interlaced with recent interviews with those who were involved, to create a sense of creativity emerging from chaos, and never more clearly than in the section dealing with the collaboration between Monk and Overton which led to the successful concert at New York’s Town Hall on February,28th, 1959. We see Overton, whose students including a young Steve Reich, listening to Monk playing one of his compositions – Little Rootie Tootie – on the piano, then copying down the idiosyncratic voicings and intervals before scoring them for an orchestra comprising trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, three saxophones, bass and drums. Not easy to do; not easy to play. The musicians involved, including the alto player, Phil Woods, made it clear how difficult the music was to play, how much rehearsal time was needed – three weeks of rehearsing from three in the morning till early morning, and this, as Woods said, with musicians who hardly ever rehearsed at all.
Some time ago now, Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop in the States began a series of short stories and novellas under the blanket title of Bibliomysteries – crime stories that, one way or another, have a strong connection with the world of books, book collecting and book selling. The first of these, The Book of Virtue, was written by Ken Bruen, since when authors have included Ian Rankin, Megan Abbott, Joyce Carol Oates, Denise Mina and John Connolly. Published as single small-format book(lets), they are available in hardcover editions, limited to only 100 copies, numbered and signed by the author, priced $50, and in in paperback for $4.95 each. They are also available in Ebook format through MysteriousPress.com.*
When Otto first approached me to contribute to the series, I was slightly put off by the minimum word requirement of 10,000 words, the majority of stories I’ve successfully written in the past coming in at considerably less than that; but once an idea had taken hold– the provenance of an unpublished crime novel by a minor but highly collectable Modernist poet, with its origins in mid-20th century Bohemian Soho – and with the considerable expert knowledge of my friend Giles Bird, book seller extraordinary** – I breezed past the limit by a good 3,000 words and very much enjoyed the experience.
This is how the story begins …
Once upon a time Jack Kiley lived over a bookshop in Belsize Park. Nights he couldn’t sleep, and there were many, he’d soft foot downstairs and browse the shelves. Just like having his own private library. Patrick Hamilton, he was a particular favourite for a while, perversity in the seedier backstreets of pre-war London: The Siege of Pleasure, Hangover Square. Then it was early Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, Gerald Kersh. He was four chapters into Night and the City when the envelope, pale blue and embossed across the seal, was slipped beneath his door. Notice to quit. The shop was being taken over by a larger concern and there were alternative plans for the building’s upper floors that didn’t include having a late-fortyish private detective, ex-Metropolitan police, as tenant. Kiley scoured the pages of the local press, skimmed the internet, made a few calls: the result, two rooms plus a bathroom and minuscule kitchen above a charity shop in a less buoyant part of north London, namely Tufnell Park. If not exactly low rent, it was at least affordable. Just. And no more a true park than it’s upscale neighbour.
Having to pass through the shop on his way upstairs, Kiley’s eye grew used to picking out the occasional bargain newly arrived on the rail: a v-necked sweater from French Connection, forty percent cashmere; a pair of black denim jeans, by the look of them barely worn, and fortuitously his size, 36” waist, 32” inside leg. The book section was seldom to his taste, too many discarded copies of J. K. Rowling and Fifty Shades of Grey, whereas the ever-changing box of CDs offered up the more than occasional gem. A little soul, late 50s Sinatra, Merle Haggard, a little jazz. He was listening to Blues With a Reason, Chet Baker, when his mobile intervened.
“Jack? I’m across the street at Bear and Wolf if you’d care to join me.”
Kiley pressed stop on the stereo and reached for his shoes.
As the telling goes, Joe Temperley’s first brush with the Humphrey Lyttelton band was depping on tenor sax, then his chosen instrument, for a temporarily ailing Jimmy Skidmore in 1958. Pleased with Temperley’s playing, Humph told him he was thinking of expanding the sax section from two to three and was looking for someone to play baritone. Having assured Humph that baritone was actually his favourite of all the saxophones, Temperley got the gig and went out and bought his first baritone sax the next day.
Well, it’s a good story and it signals the beginning of the eight piece Lyttelton Band that, between 1958 and 1965, when Temperley left for the States, played some of the most authentic and exciting live jazz it has been my pleasure to have heard. Inspired by visits of both the Ellington and Basie bands to the UK in the late 50s and early 60s, and able to work later with Basie alumni such as the trumpeter and arranger Buck Clayton and the singer Jimmy Rushing, Humph’s band were a world class outfit during those years and, as such, a perfect springboard to launch Temperley’s career in America. By 1974, he was replacing Harry Carney in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and from 1988 he held down the baritone chair in the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis, who said of him …
For someone from another country and culture to exhibit the depth of belief that animated his sound was, and still is, truly miraculous…
After he left for the States, I only saw Temperley playing on a few occasions: with the Lincoln Centre band at the Barbican relatively recently; in a small group with the pianist Junior Mance at a New York Club in 1998 or 99; and, a couple of years before that, at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London’s Soho.
Charlie Resnick saw him, too …
Resnick had been to the old Pizza Express Jazz Club, not the new; had suffered near heat exhaustion listening to Buddy Tate on a summer night when sweat stuck fast to the walls and finally he’d been forced upstairs and out on to the street where the sound was blurred but at least he wouldn’t faint.
This place was larger, still low-ceilinged but air-conditioned; black walls hung with posters, a thick red carpet on the stage. Resnick sat at a small round table smack up against the centre mike, a clear view along the piano keys to his left.
He’d been seated no more than ten minutes when Temperley moved into the spotlight, a wide-shouldered, heavy man wearing a loose, double-breasted suit, a dark shirt, a tie shot through with aquamarine. There was something of Resnick’s father in the broad, almost Slavic face, glasses, dark hair and moustache.
“All the way from America …” said the announcer. “Aye,” Temperley scowled, clipping his saxophone on to its sling. “By way of Cowdenbeath.” Leaning towards the piano, he called a blues in B flat. After two choruses, bell of the baritone close to the mike, the first notes spilled out, rhythmic, rich; large hands, square thumbed, working the keys with ease.
Tune followed tune, song followed song; the club slowly filled. Broadway, The Very Thought of You, Straight, No Chaser, Once in a While. Waiters and waitresses brought food and beer, bottles of wine. Tempos changed. Between solos, perspiring, Temperley took out a handkerchief and rubbed it back and forth across the back of his head.
“We’d like to finish the first set,” he said, “with Duke Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood.”
from “Cool Blues” originally published in Blue Lightning (Slow Dancer Press, 1988).Collected in Now’s the Time (William Heinemann, 2002)
In a comment appended to my previous post, listing the music that had shuffled its way to the top of my iPod this month, Åge Hedley Petersen reminded me that I had written about this month’s number one artist, the American pianist Jessica Williams, in the 9th Resnick novel, Still Water.
Resnick is in London, on the trail of Jerzy Grabianski, burglar, art connoisseur, humanitarian and, in many respects, Resnick’s alter ego, and, finding himself with a free evening, makes his way to a jazz club called the Rhythmic in Islington, near Chapel Market, where Jessica Williams is the main attraction.
The street that Resnick walked along was thick with refuse from that day’s market, crates and boxes interlaced with bright blue paper, rotting oranges, grapes, onions oozing pus.
The Rhythmic was on the left-hand side, behind where the market proper ended. The main room was large, larger than Resnick had anticipated, the half immediately facing him set out with tables for dining. He had time to buy a bottle of Budvar and find leaning space along the side wall before the lights dimmed and, after a brief announcement, Jessica Williams came on stage.
Tall, red-haired, and wearing a long, loose flowing dress, she sat at the piano and for a moment fidgeted with the height of the stool. Even before she began playing, fingers hesitating above the keys, Resnick had noticed the size of her hands. Then, without introduction, she launched into “I Should Care”. Almost deferentially at first, brushing the tune around the edges, feeling her way freshly into a melody she must have played – and Resnick heard – a hundred times. Ten minutes later, when she had exhausted every variation, left hand rocking through a stride pattern that would have made James P. Johnson or Fats Waller beam with pleasure, she finished to a roar of disbelieving applause.
And paused, eyes closed, waiting for the silence to resume.This time it was a slow blues, building from the most basic of patterns to a dazzling display of counterpoint that recalled for Resnick an old album he had bought by Lennie Tristano – “C Minor Complex”. “G Minor Complex” – bop meets Bach. After that, she clearly felt relaxed enough to talk, and played her way through two sets of standards and originals that held the crowd’s – and Resnick’s – attention fast.
By the time he walked back out into the London night some hours later, he knew he had been in the presence of something – someone – special.
I should care, the words came to him, I should let it upset me. When he dialled Hannah’s number from the call-box on the corner, the answerphone had been switched off and it rang and rang and tang until he broke the connection with his thumb.
“Call-box on the corner” – that dates it. And the funny thing is, though the Jessica Williams performance I’m describing is one Katy which I was actually present, it was at the more austere Purcell Rooms at the South Bank Centre; the person I saw at the short-lived Rhythmic was Milt Jackson, a wonderful evening of superb musicianship which led to me featuring Jackson in the opening chapter of the novel.
Just in case you didn’t manage to get along to Meadow Lane for the final game of 2015, here’s a little gem you missed in the Notts County programme. And, oh yes, after being 2-0 down at half-time, Notts got back on level terms before the final whistle. A good effort, you might think, but not good enough to keep manager Ricardo Moniz and his backroom team in their jobs.