Donald's Blog

  This old house was only a few blocks from the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. All the neighborhood cats lived in the basement during the winter. The house has long since been torn down, but in 1972 there were AR2ax speakers in the front room, and a lot of good music was heard there.

«May 2024»

In the 21st century I am just as opinionated as ever, and I now have an outlet. I shall pontificate here about anything that catches my fancy; I hope I will not make too great a fool of myself. You may comment yea or nay about anything on the site; I may quote you here, or I may not. Send brickbats etc. to:


April 17, 2018

And as long as I'm whining

While everything else has been going on, I have had cataract surgery. I haven't had a decent pair of glasses for years now; in particular that seems to be a problem in Colorado Springs, and I've been warned that I will have a cataract problem down the road, so I thought I'd get it over with. My long-distance vision wasn't that bad; I was amused on the rare occasion that I jumped in the car and drove away forgetting my glasses on that I could drive perfectly well without them. Now however my distance vision is 20-20: we have big windows and lovely trees in the yard and I can see every twig and bud.

But I used to be to read without glasses. Since I have been getting older I have been wearing reading glasses, but I could still read without them, in bed for example, especially if I held one hand over the worst eye. Now I am dreadfully nearsighted. For the rest of my life I will never be able to read anything without glasses, not even the label on a pill bottle. If I had known the trade-off was going to be that dramatic I would have stayed with the cataracts. I can only hope to end up with a useful pair of glasses.


March 22, 2018

At the mercy of a schmuck

It's a shame when a dope like Mark Zuckerberg accidentally changes the world, because he is going to have no idea what he is doing. As rich as the guy is, he can't even buy himself a proper shirt.

Addendum: a couple of weeks later he put on a suit and tie for Congress. I wonder if it's true that they didn't know who he was at first.


March 18, 2018

The last election

Last week the Wall Street Journal presented an important fact about the last election in two or three different places. Here's William A. Galston on March 14:

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won only 472 counties, but they represented fully 64% of GDP. Donald Trump's 2,584 counties accounted for only 36%.

Of course Hillary's been bragging about this, as she should, although of course the WSJ doesn't think so. And the converse is even more important: she won the most prosperous counties, but she lost the rest. When I was a kid there was a steel mill in Middletown, Ohio, which J.D Vance wrote about in last year's best-selling Hillbilly Elegy. South Bend, Indiana had Studebaker. There was a General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, where Paul Ryan should be selling used cars. And in my home town of Kenosha there was a Simmons mattress factory, American Motors, Snap On, MacWhyte Wire Rope, American Brass and several more. All these factories provided tens of thousands of good jobs to people from all over the USA, who retired with good pensions. But those jobs are all gone, and the children and grandchildren of those workers can't find decent jobs. They should be the natural constituency of the Democratic party, but Hillary hardly visited the Midwest, and never set foot in Wisconsin. That's why my home town subscribed to Donald Trump's lies. 


March 10, 2018

A New Lees on Life

A habitué of this blog, if any there are, will have noticed some changes lately. I have restored two of my books to be read here, since they were not making much money as downloads, and I would rather have them here for free. And there are now well over 4000 entries in the Encyclopedia (I could be adding more entries every week if it were not for all the interruptions: two surgeries on my back in the last five months, among other things).

But the most dramatic change is no doubt the addition of Gene Lees' Jazzletter. This is more than 300 issues of the private publication of the long-time writer and editor who knew everybody, and was an expert at backing into the limelight. His reminiscences, anecdotes and interviews (and contributions from other writers) were looked forward to by subscribers from 1981 to 2008, but were lost when he passed away, except for those of us who had collected them. My partner in this crime has been Claude Neuman, a translator of poetry who lives in France and was also a friend of Gene's; you can find out more by clicking on "Gene Lee's Jazzletter", where there is a blurb, and a disclaimer: "We have been unable to make contact with Gene’s family, but should they wish to upload or publish the Jazzletter themselves, we would gladly pass the torch to them."

Hundreds of people have been notified of the resurrection of the Jazzletter, and I have also received a message from a Canadian gentleman who thought that my disclaimer was 'presumptuous' (is that a Canadian word?).

Well, copyright can be a problem. My wife and I have published 20 or more books between us, depending on how you count them, and every one of them contains a similar disclaimer: "We have tried to find the owner of [this or that photo or whatever]; if you will kindly let us know..." I know people who have had to sue people to get their own work back! I nursed an idea for a TV version of The RIse And Fall of Popular Music -- I even had a good time writing some scenes in my head -- until a successful producer of TV films told me that he commissions original music for his works because licensing music costs too much. I wonder how many worthwhile projects never see the light of day for that reason. I myself am ashamed of American copyright law, driven by corporate types on behalf of the Mickey Mouse estate.

It is of course all about money. I belong to a group that shares broadcasts and out-of-print records of classical music; nobody bothers us because classical music isn’t seen to be worth anything. And maybe my disclaimer about the Jazzletter is similar to that: there is no money here. Claude put up quite a sum to have the pages turned into pdfs; now that I am buying extra protection from GoDaddy against scammers, malware etc, it costs me several hundred a year just to keep the site up. In ten years the site hadn’t earned me a dime (the donate button is new this month.). People have been cribbing my stuff for over 30 years, and I don’t mind because that’s what it’s for. When Cab Calloway died, there was a mistake in an obit in a national British paper that came from my Encyclopedia entry!

There is some irony and some comedy here. Gene was sore at me when he died; he was sore at a lot of people from time to time. (I was also corresponding with Max Harrison; they were a pair of loveable cranks: they each warned me about the other.) We tried to get in touch with those relatives of Gene's that we knew about and nobody seemed to be interested. Gene is on record as worrying that after he died he would be forgotten; we are trying to prevent that, for a while at least. But if I get any threatening letters from lawyers I’ll just yank the Jazzletter and Claude can do what he likes with it.

Meanwhile, the chap in Canada says that there have been proposals to put the jazz magazine Coda online, which always founder because it changed hands three times. So they do nothing, and Coda remains in limbo.


March 7, 2018

Yet another first-world problem

I subscribed to all those mail-order budget classical record clubs back in the 1950s: The Musical Masterpiece Society, Music Treasures of the World, there was no end of them. Some of the MMS tracks are still favorites, European recordings that could be leased at the time for very little. Now I am trying to buy a Music Treasures number just to find out if it's the one that still intrigues me. These came in a polythene sleeve, no jacket, no notes except perhaps an insert on a sheet of paper; a recording of Bizet's L'Arlésienne Suite no. 2 was not only a fun performance, but in the Farandole used a tambourine-like instrument, allegedly the French folk instrument that Bizet wanted, instead of the usual little drum. Hard to believe that everyone else has got it wrong all these decades, but I'd like to hear it again.

So I ordered the record from Discogs (where you can find some pretty weird old stuff) and was supposed to hear from the seller about how to pay, but did not; next got a note from Discogs to say that the order was about to be cancelled because I hadn't paid; went to Paypal and paid and the payment seemed to be going to the wrong place, because the seller apparently has three different names: Atomic-Age, Vixen Vinyl LLC, and Now the record is supposed to be on the way. Such a lot of rigmarole just to gamble a couple of bucks.

addenda: The record arrived and the performance of the Farandole is not the one I was hoping for. In fact I had to put on headphones and turn up the volume just to hear the percussionist; he must have been using brushes. I lost the gamble.


March 7, 2018

Good reading discovered

Last week Billy Graham was on the news every night for several nights running; now I guess he is safely under the grass. Coincidentally, I saw an abridged version of an essay by Marilynne Robinson in the Times Literary Supplement that I enjoyed so much that I purchased a download of her new collection, What Are We Doing Here?

Robinson is a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, who is now retired from teaching at the Iowa Writers Workshop in Iowa City, the most highly regarded such department in the USA. I read one of her novels years ago, because it was remaindered and I bought it very cheap; the rest of them are on my bucket list, which is already impossibly long. I did not know until now that she is also a lecturer and an essayist of the very first order, and takes no prisoners:

I mentioned how aware I am that I bear the stigma of living in Iowa and of teaching in a public university. This country grossly impoverishes itself with this condescending or contemptuous dismissal of vast reaches of its terrain and the multitudes who live and die there. I have been asked a hundred times why I teach at Iowa, by people sophisticated enough to know that in my field anywhere else on earth would be a step down. So perhaps I teach at a public school in the Midwest because I am an elitist.

She studies history, and takes nothing for granted. (We think of the Puritans as cruel and intolerant; in fact they were a vast improvement on what had come before: they did not believe in torture or burning people.) She is a religious person, regarding theology, history and science as equally important and indispensible, on top of which she is a spellbinding writer. Her stuff is absolutely thrilling, and makes the likes of Billy Graham sound like children ranting in their playpens.


March 7, 2018

The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.

I left my wife and children 53 years ago. We had two beautiful little girls; compared to all our working-class friends, our kids were better behaved, we had a nicer home, and fewer debts… But dear old Sandy, my high-school sweetheart, was unhappy. She complained constantly about everything, and about nothing. I could not seem to please her, and I finally decided that there was no point in both of us being unhappy, so I left.

I was young and dumb, and did not realize how hard this would be on the girls. Soon I found myself living overseas; they have each had somewhat rackety lives, and while somehow I stayed close to the oldest, the younger one was understandably resentful, and we were more or less on the outs for a while. She may have been too strict on her own children, but she has mellowed. I don't know what happened. The important thing is that we get along now.

Meanwhile, I had finally found my life partner, and for nearly forty years I have watched her make friends around the world. I'll never forget the first time I saw Ethne lecture, on the subject of some flower or other; in a round barn in the middle of Texas a large audience was bored almost to sleep by people attempting murder by power point, but as soon as Ethne opened her mouth people sat up and started having a good time. That was nearly 20 years ago, and last month it happened for the Nth time: she didn't want to go to Palm Springs; she had concerns at home, she thought there wouldn't be much of an audience and the trip would be a waste of time, but of course she went and lectured about mid-century modern and was a smash hit: the room was packed; some had come just to see her, no matter what she was talking about, and they didn't want to let her off the stage.

At her last job she had been head-hunted to revive a 70-year-old magazine. She won awards from the magazine industry, including Best Relaunch; but the atmosphere at that company was poisonous (nobody can know what passive-aggressive is until they've worked in the media). Even there she tried to mentor younger people, helping them along with their editorial skills, as she herself was mentored decades ago in London. She is a much nicer person than I am, or at least a lot more gregarious; people on almost every continent want us to come visit; if we were younger and had more money we would be travelling constantly.

But we have had some concerns recently; I have been in pain for several months thanks to osteoporosis, and Ethne has been heartbroken by something that has been going on close to home: there are always travails. And then along comes the eldest grandchild with a sledgehammer of imagined nonsense about Ethne picking on her about her weight. We have had trouble with this kid before; she apparently needs to be the center of attention. We were happy because she seemed to be looking happier lately; she used to look skinny and haggard. She and her second husband and her three beautiful and talented daughters came here last summer for a visit and we all had a wonderful time. Or so we thought. We were wrong: the eldest grandchild is not happy at all. It seems she thinks she is overweight: we did not know that, and we don't give a damn. But she thinks that Ethne has been fat-shaming her, which is a social media phenomenon of her generation, not ours.

She says that our relationship, hers and mine, has always been "fragile"; well, I was living overseas until she was a teenager, and I had not seen her since she was a toddler. And when it came time, who did her best to do something about that fragility? Ethne, that's who. She engineered a visit to the eldest grandchild when she was in college in New Jersey, and I remember being disappointed that her boyfriend couldn't be there: I guess that was the first husband. And there was a meeting in Philadelphia, where the eldest couldn't make it, but where I met a grandson for the first time. (He called me Grandpa, which I liked; at least we are friends on Facebook.) At some point, when we were living in Iowa, the phone rang, Ethne answered it, and a tiny voice asked "Ethne?" She was stuck alone with one or two babies in some godforsaken military town in Kentucky or wherever, and she needed to reach out, and we were pleased and deeply touched that she reached out to us. Again, on a visit to New York, Ethne brought the two grandaughters and the two oldest great-grandchildren to our hotel room as a surprise for me, and we all had a nice time going to the zoo. There have been other meetings: we went to visit her and the kids in Germany when the first husband was stationed there.

And most recently, when the eldest was living in a broken-down house trailer after a divorce, our son rented a trailer and hauled her car all way from Georgia to Pennsylvania; and when she decided to go back to college, we invited her to come and live with us, where she would be safer and closer to school: Ethne and I both had that idea, but Ethne suggested it first, so she gets the credit. And the eldest did her best to screw that up with her self-centeredness. And now when I remind her what a good person Ethne is and how hard she has tried to reach out to my earlier family, she says she is "flummoxed".

Okay, she doesn't like Ethne, she distrusts her, she's afraid of her, whatever. I don't care. Some women have to be suspicious of other women, perhaps especially older, stronger women; that's not our problem. Ethne isn't taking any more insults, and I find this mindlessness disgusting, so here I am on the outs again with a loved one. The eldest grandchild says, "This is high school nonsense. I wash my hands of it." She should have done that before she started. Somebody said that she'll probably turn into a nice person in 25 years, but I won't care. I'll be dead.

Here is the eldest grandchild, in February 2018:
"something incorrect…unacceptable behavior…rude, unbecoming, and an insult…passive-aggressive...cutting nasty comments with sharp teeth…disgraceful…in poor taste…foolish idiocy…vicious note…bitter woman…"

And here is Oliver Cromwell in August 1650:
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken."

Aftr 53 years, the moral of the story hasn't changed. One can choose to be happy, or one can choose to be unhappy. Maybe it's something genetic.


December 21, 2017

Oh, for a president with some character

Donald Trump could become a transformative president. Richard Nixon had to resign in disgrace, but before that he had already transformed the world when he went to China: remember how we used to argue about whether we should "recognize" Red China? Now Donald Trump could refuse to sign the tax bill, saying, "Nobody likes this, and there's too much stuff in it. We need to take another look." He could endorse sensible gun control laws, which the whole country wants. He's not a Democrat or a Republican; he despises the Republican leadership; in fact he despises Congress. He owes nothing to anyone, cares about no one but himself; he could throw his enemies off balance and become the center of attention. But he hasn't the brains or the balls.


December 21, 2017

It was a beautiful morning, so I took a picture

It was a beautiful morning, so I took a picture


December 19, 2017

Cuban music

Colin Channer, reviewing Joshua Jelly-Schapiro's book Island People: The Caribbean and the World in the TLS for December 2:

'His exploration of cubanidad or Cuban-ness skilfully reveals how the slave revolt in Haiti forever shaped Cuba's food and music. In 1803, 30,000 French planters "outrunning a final assault by Haiti's General Dussalines" established "hundreds of shaded coffee plantations in the mountains around Santiago, thereby implanting in Cuba a new industry and a new taste: cafés soon dotted Santiago and Havana". The refugees also brought with them line dances and quadrilles in an era when most of Havana's working musicians, Jelly-Schapiro writes, were creolized Africans.

'And these musicians, steeped not in the steady march tempos of Europe, but in more syncopated approaches to organizing sonic time, transformed the music's rhythms. They built songs around the repeated rhythmic figures that musicologists trace to the looping thumb piano melodies of South Central Africa.

'Along with Spanish influences, Jelly-Schapiro adds, this mash-up is the base ingredient of "all those Cuban styles to come, from the danzón to the habanera, bolero, and cha-cha-cha".'

I would add that the music of the islands, especially Cuba, had a profound inluence on the music of New Orleans. Jelly Roll Morton loved the habanera, if I'm not wrong. An endlessly fascinating subject.


October 10, 2017

Columbia Records as was

I have received a news item forwarded from one of my music chatlists: "Yale collections open for research." One of the newly opened collections is the Goddard Lieberson papers: "Goddard Lieberson (1911-1977) was president of Columbia Records from 1956-1975. He spearheaded a number of recording projects for Columbia, and was the inventor of the LP (Long-Playing record)."

Lieberson must have been an interesting man, a highly-cultured New Yorker, whose classmates at Eastman/Rochester included Mitch Miller and Alec Wilder. He composed a string quartet, and sent a recording of it to conductor George Szell, who replied that it was good to hear of a record company executive who actually knew something about music from the inside.

But Lieberson had nothing to do with the invention of the long-playing record. That is usually credited to Peter Goldmark, who was president of CBS labs at the time, but he didn't have much to do with it either. The chief progenitors of the LP were Edward Wallerstein and Jim Hunter (who had earlier been poached  from RCA!) and Wallerstein hired Bill Bachman from General Electric, who had already experimented with microgrooves in the 1930s. 


July 3, 2017

Kaiser Permanente - anybody home?

We are both on Medicare and we both have supplemental insurance, and we have tried and tried to take advantage of their paperless option, and each month we each get a useless fat envelope full of "statement" offering the paperless option on the cover: "and we will send you an email notification whenever you have a statement to view." Oy...


July 3, 2017

A very talented lady

I am dubbing a pile of 78s for a friend, and it's fun and interesting to me, playing with all the old records, looking closely at the labels, looking them up in Brian Rust's Jazz Records...The last batch included Jimmy Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins, John Kirby, Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy. Nice to hear Pha Terrell on four of Kirk's ballads; he was quite a good singer of that kind. Most of the records have just been the pop music of the day, but two instrumentals were unusually fine: "A Mellow Bit Of Rhythm" and "In The Groove". I was not surprised to find that they were both composed and arranged by Kirk's pianist, Mary Lou Williams, both in 1937. She no doubt would have been much more famous and successful than she was had she not been a woman.


July 3, 2017

John Kirby: "The BIggest Little Band in the Land"

Bassist John Kirby led a band in the late 1930s that was very successful on the radio for a black band, partly because of its amusing and elegant arrangements. Raymond Scott led one of the first integrated studio bands on the radio, at CBS; Scott also composed intricate arrangements, which also required very good musicians to play them, and also borrowed from classical composers, as Kirby's sometimes did. But Scott's arrangements were novelties, presenting intricacy for its own sake; Kirby's were still good jazz. 

Both bands recorded for Columbia. One of Scott's hits was a ripoff from Mozart called "In An Eighteenth Century Drawing Room", and I can't help wondering if it inspired Kirby and trumpeter Charlie Shavers to write "20th Century Closet".


June 3, 2017

Through the looking glass

According to the NYT, colleges are celebrating diversity by having segregated commencements, and the President of the United States especially denounced global warming on days when it was cold out. I must stop reading the papers.


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