Vince Mendoza’s Really Big Big Band

Our introduction to composer/arranger Vince Mendoza came in the early ’90s with his Blue Note albums Start Here and Instructions Inside. The recordings featured some great musicians — Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Ralph Towner, Peter Erskine and Bob Mintzer among them — and a sort of post-Gil Evans music that immediately caught our attention with its orchestration and harmonics. Mendoza’s since done compositions and arrangements for Elvis Costello, Charlie Haden, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Al DiMeola, Bjork, Kurt Elling, the Yellowjackets and others.

In 1995, Mendoza took over as director of the Netherlands Public Broadcasting Network’s Metropole Orkest, a symphony-sized ensemble known to embrace a wide swath of jazz, pop and classical music. His recent recordings with the Metropole, 54, a showcase for electric guitarist John Scofield, and Fast City, a collection of Joe Zawinul tunes arranged by Mendoza for the Orkest, are something unusual in the cross-over world of jazz instrumentation. Mendoza write more than framing for the orchestra. It ‘s various sections become active contributors to the music, not just background.  Their sound, an embrace of acoustic and instrumental possibilities applied to rhythms thought foreign and impossible for large ensembles, is groundbreaking.

I interviewed Mendoza via email in April for a piece written for the Playboy Jazz Festival’s program entitled the “The Evolution and Endless Attraction of Big Bands.” Here’s the entirety of our exchange.

Do you see your work as an extension of the jazz big band or something entirely different? What’s the difference when you’re writing/recording with 54 piece rather than 17; what art the advantages and the drawbacks?

The first hurdle is to overcome the tremendous traditions associated with the big band and the expectations associated with this instrumentation. A good number of contemporary jazz composers are taking advantage of the instrumentation of the big band as well as taking it to another level, opening up the possibilities and getting away from cliché. The same of course is true of the orchestra.  Some composers have a certain expectation of what to do with a string section or a set of orchestral winds that may or may not have anything to do with being contemporary. I try not to let instrumentation be a distraction. It write for the big band or orchestra based on the feeling of the music and the desired textures associated with that. Sometimes it sounds like Debussy, but other times it is like Thad Jones, or Zawinul, or Brookmeyer, or well, Brahms. it is all about the ideas of the compositions and how the musicians can be a part of the party. The rest is orchestration.

Of course the next part of the challenge is to get the individual musicians to think like a group, and listen to each other while interpreting the music the way you (as the writer) want it.  It isn’t always easy to get strings to phrase like brass players, let alone have them groove with a rhythm section. Getting musicians to feel the music and translate it to their instruments can be difficult in this regard.
You’ve done work with the London Symphony… is that again something different? Or is there some kind of common denominator? Traditionally, these kinds of works seem to frame a jazz soloist inside the symphonic sound. Your work (as on 54 and Epiphany) seems more integrated (ie, the orchestra plays more than just a supporting role and works like another instrument with the featured guest). How do you achieve this as you compose and arrange?
Every group is different.  It is very important when working with primarily symphonic groups to understand the world in which they exist. You can’t train a symphony orchestra to play funky in 3 hours. You can’t teach a sax section to play Stravinsky in a day. But there are some elements of all music that are similar, and younger musicians are much more open to playing in different languages. Ultimately you need to bring some music to the table that can be understood and then communicated by the musicians. This is why the Jazz elements of Epiphany were primarily transmitted by the improvisors and rhythm section, with a few exceptions, of course. My point of view of this music was more classical than that of “54” which was much more in the Jazz arena. But the LSO was still very much integrated into the compositions on Epiphany. And they sure played great!  The Metropole of course is multilingual, and connected with the spirit of John’s compositions and my approach to arranging them. This makes it much easier to write parts for the musicians, knowing that they know exactly where to put it, and how their parts fit in with the other members of the group.
How difficult are the financial circusmtances for the Metropole, despite the support it receives from the Netherlands Public Braodcasting Network and in light of the budget cuts to arts support in this country?
The Netherlands has probably the most complicated broadcast system in the world.   And the Metropole Orkest, along with the Philharmonic, the Choir and Chamber Orchestra are right in the middle of it.  The MO was started after world war 2, modeled after the Paul Whiteman orchestra. Its primary reason to exist in those days, up until, say, the 60’s was to play live music on the radio, much in the same way live music was broadcast on the radio in the US before the musicians strike in the 40s. Like Whiteman, it spent a lot of time in people’s living rooms. Like everywhere else, the function of the orchestra changed over the years (as did the music) and the MO started to do more CD and Film/TV projects as well as participate in cultural events like festivals and concerts. Now the orchestra has its hand in every major music festival in the Netherlands (including a yearly project at the Northsea Jazz Festival), plays on Dutch movies and tv scores, and especially since I have been involved, been responsible for some excellent high profile CD recordings. The orchestra has literally been seen and heard by millions. Last year the incoming government instituted some draconian changes in the stucture of the government in general, but categorically wiped out all of the broadcast orchestras as of ’14. However since then this policy was re-vamped and we see the situation stabilizing somewhat. However it will never be what it was in terms of government support. But we have every reason to feel that the Metropole has a future, not because of its association with the now ailing (but still convoluted) broadcast system there, but because in my opinion it has in the past 66 years become an indelible part of the cultural and media landscape there, and I can never really see it going away. It is too important to the identity (and history) of the Dutch to lose it.
What are your future goals for the Metropole?

I have always thought that we need to get the orchestra out of the cellar and onto the concert stage and in front of the community. We are continuing that course. We have a profile to spend the seasons playing Jazz, World Music, Pop, Dutch Cabaret, Film and Historic repertoire, and spend several weeks a year on Educational projects like our yearly Arrangers Workshop. We just finished a live CD with Al Jarreau and another with King Crimson guitarist Adrien Belew.  Next year they have Todd Rundgen, a Bollywood program and I am conducting a concert of the music of Esquivel. Diverse?? You Bet!

There He Goes…James Moody Interview

I thought something was wrong with me as a kid in Newark…I saw the way people of color were treated. Then I thought, Wait a minute.    There’s  nobody in the world that’s better than me. Nobody. And by the same token, I’m not better than anyone else.–James Moody

When James Moody died at 84 last week from pancreatic cancer, he left more than a musical legacy. We had mutual friends and I was honored to spend a number of evenings listening to his music and in his company (and that of his widow, Linda) when we both lived in Los Angeles.  The saxophonist famous for “Moody’s Mood For Love” was one of the nicest gentleman you’d ever meet, a person who treated everyone equally no matter their place or race. But he was nobody’s fool and was outspoken about racism in our country.

It should be remembered that Moody (he was always Moody to everyone and insisted he be called by his last name) served in the Army Air Force during World War II and that he expatriated to Europe in 1948 to escape, as he later told us, the way black musicians were treated in the States. “Paris saved me,” he said the last time we talked. “I went there to stay two weeks with my uncle and ended up staying three years. All my cousins there were studying math and physics, making something of themselves. Back in Newark, I never had that chance.”

Our discussion in April of 2008 was ostensibly about jazz festivals, particularly his experiences at Hollywood’s Playboy Jazz Festival. He spent time telling stories of hanging out back stage with old friends and making new ones, playing with his long-time compadre Dizzy Gillespie in a quintet that followed Weather Report. “They were like pow!pow!pow!,” he yelled. ” And then the stage turned,” he says in a whisper, ” and we were all shh! shh!. It didn’t take the audience more than a moment to catch on.”

But the political season was well underway. Controversial Pastor Jerimiah Wright of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, attended by candidate Obama,  had just made an appearance on Bill Moyers Journal and his remarks were being used to smear the candidate. Moody was quick to point out that much of what the pastor had said was true. “If you heard the whole thing he told the truth for America. The truth hurts and I don’t care how people hear it but the truth will set you free. Much of what this country hears, about this and that, is a lie.”

He had words on Iraq: “First of all, you can’t take something from someone because you have bigger guns then get all moral about it while you treat them like dogs. Don’t give me that “God Bless America” stuff when you’re doing that. You don’t have to wear a flag to be a patriot.”

But most of what concerned him was the racism that the election had brought out. “Things are very different now, but I’m not saying there isn’t still racism. Look at the news. They’re saying Hillary will get the white vote but that has nothing to do with it. There’s no difference between people, even between people of different colors. My wife is blond yet we have the same blood type.

“I was in the service in Greensboro, North Carolina and German prisoners of war would come into places with military police that I couldn’t even get into. And I was an American soldier. In Newark, I’d go to the Savoy Theater and I had to sit in the balcony and not on the first floor. There were two separate societies, white and black, and they were not equal.

“And it still exists today. We were on tour with the Monterey Jazz All-Stars and my wife was on my shoulder and they’d say, ‘You two together?’ We’d eat and I ‘d hand them my platinum card and they’d return it to my wife. We’d be sitting together and they’d ask if we wanted separate checks. These things are more covered up in the north but they still happen.”

“What’s all this have to do with music? It has everything to do with music. The reason jazz was called the devil’s music is because it was done by colored people. That didn’t stop people from listening to it, from enjoying it. The music, the sound, is what makes people feel good. It’s what makes me feel good and that’s why I bring it to them.

Moody said he wouldn’t want to be president, but things would be different if he were. “If I were, we’d have to be honest about everything. No more of this pretending things aren’t like they are, no more being hoodwinked. Everything would be honest. For one thing we’d have to start paying teachers decent salaries. It’s disgusting all these professional athletes and business executives, the money they make. Let’s pay people who are doing something for the kids.”

Moody was wound up, but he returned to his two over-riding, optimistic themes; education of all types (he was always a great supporter of music education) and the fact that people’s differences were often less than they imagined…or were made to imagine. “In my administration, I’d get people to see things the way they are, be honest with them and get them to do the right thing. I’d get people to utilize the talents they have, whatever they are. I’d get people happy about things. Look at all the potential we have, everyone — Korean, Polish, African, Arab, Chinese, English — all these different people who really are the same. I’d get them to do what they do best. Then we could really sing.”–Cabbage Rabbit

John McLaughlin Interview

John McLaughlin was a 27-year-old, relatively unknown guitarist in 1969 when he arrived in the U.S. from England to join drummer Tony Williams’ Lifetime band with organist Larry Young. His background was broad and without category.  He had been brought up by a concert violinist mother to love classical music, flamenco and traditional jazz. He had worked with Brian Auger and Graham Bond as well as jazz and R&B singer-bandleader Georgie Frame. Before leaving, he recorded Extrapolation (with John Surman and Tony Oxley), hailed by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in theThe Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings as “one of the finest jazz records ever made in Europe.” It took his coming to America for that recording to catch on.

Within days of arriving in New York,  McLaughlin was recruited by Miles Davis to record what became In A Silent Way and later Bitches Brew. His participation in those projects — Davis titled one of the cuts on Bitches Brew “John McLaughlin” — changed the shape of jazz to come and helped define the fledgling fusion movement as a form not only powered by electricity and virtuosity, but a willingness to embrace a variety of forms and influences. McLaughlin would go on to form the energetically-charged and influential  Mahavishnu Orchestra and pursue a host of directions, including flamenco with fellow guitarists Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola, Middle Eastern with Trilok Gurtu, classically-tinged orchestral fusion with Michael Tilson Thomas and the Indian-influenced with Shakti. His latest recordings, Five Peace Band with Chick Corea (see Corea interview here), and  To the One,  are a return to the creative and electric power of his early days.

The Rabbit exchanged e-mails with McLaughlin as part of the research for our story “Pop and Sizzle: Plugging Into Jazz Fusion” written for the 2010 Playboy Jazz Festival’s program.  Here are the high points of that exchange.

You’ve explored and developed so many styles of music—no need for me to list them—what has driven you? Why have you been (and continue to be) open to so many styles and genres? Are your broad early influences and experiences—your mother’s classical influence, early exposure to Flamenco, Django, traditional blues, South Indian Temple Music, Miles, work with John Dankworth, Georgie Fame and others–a key? And how does it relate to your own composing?

Truth to tell, I don’t know why I’ve been involved to such a degree in my musical explorations. Most probably it is due to the environment I was subject to from an early age. I believe that we are ‘marked’ in some permanent way by our early influences, particularly when they are dynamic, and the influences you mention above were very dynamic. For example after hearing flamenco music between the age of 13 and 15, I really wanted to be a flamenco guitar player. However finding a flamenco teacher in my little town was impossible, and then shortly afterwards I heard the music of Miles, and the particular LP that I heard had also integrated Miles’ own influences of flamenco and Hispanic music. It was the album Miles Ahead with Gil Evans. From that point Miles became a kind of Guru to me. This was the real Jazz.

How I compose is still a mystery to me. There have only been two instances when I actually sat down to write music, and they were the pieces I wrote for guitar and orchestra. Other than that, the music basically just arrives in my mind. Once I hear it, I really try to stay out of its way and let it be. Of course, the music itself is probably deeply influenced by the experiences stored in my subconscious. These influences relate to all of the different forms you mention above.

-Can you give a sense of your feelings those first few weeks in 1969 after you arrived in the U.S. to work with Tony Williams and were then asked to join the In A Silent Way . Are there any anecdotes, special memories, say meeting Miles for the very first time, that stand out?

I was in a state of euphoria arriving in New York to join Tony Williams and Larry Young for Lifetime. The fact that I ended up recording with Miles the following day was really out of a dream and totally unexpected. I can never forget meeting Miles for the 1st time. I should remind you that Tony had a week to finish up with Miles at Club Baron in Harlem. This was convenient since Larry and I would go up to Club Baron during the day to rehearse with Tony as his drums were already set up there for Miles.

The 1st night in NY I went up to Club Baron, and Miles knew that Tony had invited a guitar player from the UK to join his own band, and for some reason he recognized me when he came in the door of the club. He looked amazing – as always – wearing a long black cloak, and he walked right up to me and brushed my shoulder with his saying, ‘John’ in that whispery voice of his… That was it. The following day I was with Tony at Miles’ house, and as soon as I walked in Miles came up to me and said ‘bring your guitar to the studio tomorrow’. It was just like that.

The following day in the studio was the Silent Way recording date and all I had was a piano score from Joe Zawinul. Joe didn’t know I would be there since Miles had only invited me the previous evening. After running through the tiltle track from Joe ‘In a Silent Way’, Miles wasn’t happy with the result and turned to me and said ‘Play it alone on the guitar’. Since I had only a piano score I asked him if he wanted the left and right hand together. He said yes, and I said it’ll take me a minute to put it together on guitar. He said ‘Is that a fact!’… Sweat was already running down my back and got worse after that. After a few seconds he must have realized that it was a pretty tall order, and he bailed me out by saying’ Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar’. Another of his famous cryptic statements. He was standing in front of me waiting to see what kind of reaction that would make, and after a few seconds I threw caution to the winds, which meant that I also threw all of Joe’s chords from the piece to the winds. I played the melody in E Major with no harmony no tempo, nothing… Anyway everybody knows the E chord on the guitar even if you don’t know how to play… The red light was on and I just kept on playing. On the playback Miles was delighted. I was dumbfounded. It sounded so beautiful, and that was one of Miles talents – to be able to pull music out of his musicians that they didn’t even know was inside them.

When you do a project like the Five Peace Band  or 4th Dimension, do you have a sense of legacy from those days of Miles and Mahavishnu? Or is it something that stands apart, reflecting the current times? Both? How does the spirit of what you did then affect what you do now?

Both Chick and I are very aware of our histories, and I could ask how can what we do today, stand apart from what we did yesterday? The only reason we can do what we do today is because of all our yesterdays. The time we both spent with Miles was marvellous, but already by 1972 I had the first Mahavishnu Orchestra – incidentally it was Miles who advised me to put a band together in October 1971, and Mahavishnu was the result of that suggestion – Chick put Return to Forever together and we’ve both had a lot of experiences in music since the Miles’ days. That said, during our 5 Peace Band tour together, we were very aware that it was 40 years since we’d first met and played together with Miles. That’s a lot of water under the bridge!

Interview With Chick Corea

Pianist,composer and bandleader Chick Corea is one of the jazz genre’s most unique and diverse artists. One of his earliest recordings, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, is a landmark piano trio recording. His stint with Miles Davis, who encouraged him to explore the electric piano, changed the sound of jazz accompaniment. His groundbreaking experiments with Return To Forever, first in a mixed electric-acoustic Latin-Brazilian format and then in pure electric jazz rock, showed a restless ambition.  He challenged the avant garde with Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschul in Circle and performed duets with Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, Bela Fleck and Hiromi. At one time, he worked with both Acoustic and Elektric bands. In recent years, he’s toured with his bandmate from the Miles Bitches Brew period, guitarist John McLaughlin and synthesized directions with his Freedom Band. In short, there’s no direction or combination of musicians that Corea hasn’t felt a need to explore.

For his feature article in the 2010 Playboy Jazz Festival program, “Pop and Sizzle: Plugging Into Jazz Fusion,” the Rabbit had an email exchange with the always busy Corea about his early Miles experiences, his interest in all kinds of music and how his diverse past affects his equally diverse present. Here’s the complete exchange.

–As Stanley Clarke says in the “Chick Corea” documentary, “Chick has no problems with changing.” You’ve explored and developed so many styles of music—no need for me to list them—what has driven you? Why have you been (and continue to be) open to so many styles and genres? Is your father’s influence a key? And how does it relate to your own composing?

I’m often asked about what others consider my diversity of tastes. Actually, the simple, but most truthful and direct answer is, I never think about it. I follow my interests and find that it leads me to trying to understand other cultures and the artists that create within them. Often, rather than seeing another way of music as only a “curiosity”, I want to understand it more intimately – and that leads me to studying the music of and participating with the musicians of that culture.
–When you look back on the period in 1969 when In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew were recorded, how do you view what was going on then? How would you characterize the musical times? Were you aware that what you were doing with Miles would be thought to be so innovative and different? That it reflected the shifting cultural and social  times?

From present time looking back on the 60’s, it seems that there was more agreement and acceptance in society of experiment and change. There certainly was in the arts. If I compare it to what’s happening now, it seems “The Media” and “big business” has the flow of art locked up and tightened down. The public has gotten used to it. The result is, less individuality and thus everything else that goes along with that negative direction.

Of course at the time we were recording In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, none of us were talking about what “impact” it might have on the future. Miles was in a constant mode of search and change; it all seemed perfectly natural. And, for me, still does.

–It would be great to have an anecdote from those days, some unique memory that reflects the spirit of those times. In his biography, Jack Chambers quotes Miles saying that after you first joined the group, you and he would “talk about music until late every night.” Is there anything that stands out from those discussions that you recall? What was the setting?

The first gig the Miles Davis Quintet played after Tony Williams left the band was a week’s engagement at a club in Rochester (Duffy’s Tavern?). Jack DeJohnette joined the band and we just finished the first set. As we were walking off stage, I was following Miles off to the left, he muttered to me: “Change again.” in his familiar cryptic way. I took it to mean that he had scanned his whole musical life in an instant and seen the constant change. Maybe he was resisting it at that moment – – I’ll never know.

–When you did the Five Peace Band Project, did you feel it to be part of a fusion legacy? Or was it something that stood apart, reflecting the current times? Both? How does the spirit of what you did then affect what you do now (ie, The Freedom Band)?

Working with John and the gang in the Five Peace Band felt fresh as a daisy to me. Not much talk about the past during the tours. But there was an unspoken (sometimes spoken) reverence expressed for Miles and “the day” – delivered in a manner not wanting to dwell on the past but with real feeling.
–Fusion can also suggest a combining of personalities, something you’re very familiar with especially considering the wide array of duo performances –Hiromi, Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, Bela Fleck, Bobby McFerrin, et al—you’ve done over the years. Can you address the dynamic of fusing musical personalities in performance, how it affects those involved and what they create?

Making music with other musicians is an ultimate joy. To be a part of a group creation when there is complete giving amongst the group is my pay for being a musician. And each musician is a unique world unto himself. This is the subtle and high level challenge of communication between free spirits. Unencumbered by any particular protocol, and with a desire to make the other sound the best he can sound, soulful and satisfying music can be made. I’m fortunate to have these kind of associations with my musician friends.

I remember a wonderful incident when Herbie Hancock and I were first beginning to play 2 pianos together. At first we were careful about “not getting in each other’s way”. The playing moved cautiously and slowly. Then we both discovered that we could play whatever we wanted and never get in the other’s way because there was no offering from the other that wasn’t fully accepted and enjoyed. We were both trying to make the other sound good. We had a good laugh over that.

Beat Goes On

The Beats of America’s 1950s stood far apart from the duty-bound, God-and-country, organizational-man times. It didn’t take long for the commercial culture to assimilate them in a wave of berets and bongos. The poetry, novels and art of the true counter-culture known as Beat is an honest reflection of American spirit and independence, commercial culture be damned.

During times of conformity, it’s the non-conformist who draw all the attention. The Beats of America’s 1950s stood so far apart from the duty-bound, God-and-country, organizational-man times that they soon became the freak-show focus of films, big-circulation magazines and television shows. It didn’t take long for the commercial culture to assimilate them in a wave of berets and bongos. Like the hippies that followed, they were stereotyped and scorned for a supposed anti-work ethic. Never mind that they created some of the greatest literary works of their generation.

That’s why we’ve always thought that “Beat” and “Beatnik” were two different schools. Beatniks were the posers, the wannabes that modeled their cool afterwhat they saw in Look magazine and on The Steve Allen Show. Beatniks spewed “daddy-o” while living off their daddies. Those that represented a true counter culture were Beat. Their resistance to the status quo and the pursuit of their own lives outside accepted social definitions made them truly radical and innovative. The Beats were largely a literary movement. Beatniks were a cultural and commercial fad.

This hair-splitting is important to understanding writer Harvey Pekar, illustrator Ed Piskor and others’ collection The Beats: A Graphic History. Many of their subjects don’t seem to be beatniks, but something else entirely. The comics celebrate the individuals that made up the anti-establishment of the times and whose art and social action outlives them. The stories are drawn by an eclectic mix of cartoonists and told by characters—including Pekar–every bit as individualistic as their subjects.

The book’s first hundred pages focuses on the generation’s three central players: Jack Kerouac (who gets the largest section), Allen Ginsburg and William S. Burroughs. Pekar gives us just the bare bones of their stories, emphasizing the formative moments and underscoring how they influenced each others’ work. It’s this no-man-is-an-island connection between them that made Beat literature a true movement. In different panels we see the often drunk and shiftless Kerouac urge Burroughs to write a novel, and Ginsberg, finding Burrough’s pages strewn around his Mexico City apartment, assembling and editing what was to become Naked Lunch.

It’s Ginsberg who emerges as the movement’s saint aiding his fellow writers, challenging the system and remaining true to his principles. All three men are shown to be flawed, addictive and with, the possible exception of Ginsberg who seems something of a pure sexual being, abusive to women and sexually confused.

Beat lovers will be disappointed the simplistic, boilerplate hash of these lives, especially readers who’ve delved into the excellent (and not so) biographies of these three central figures. Paul Buhle, the book’s editor, and Pekar acknowledge as much in the book’s intro:

“The book before you is a comic art production with no pretension to the depth of coverage and literary interpretation presented by hundreds of scholarly books in many languages, a literature also constantly growing. It has a different virtue, curiously in line, somehow, with the original vernacular popularization of the Beats.”

That virtue, they neatly explain, is its fresh, visual approach and appeal to narrative rhythm. And it’s true for much of the book. Some eleven illustrators contribute and their panels, ranging from symbolic realism to the surreal bring the movement to life. We’re shown the crash-pad hovels, the anger, frustration and depravity, the exotic locations and the confusion of the squares in comic detail. Pekar and five other writers supply the words, often restating the obvious when a quote or illustration would do.

This isn’t the first time comics have been used to convey Beat life. Rick Bleier’s heavily cross-hatched “Visions of Paradise: Kerouac in N.Y.C.” which appears in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats is a visually fascinating if glamorized, short account of the movement’s beginnings that surpasses in language and visual appeal most of what’s in Pekar’s book. Where Pekar et al succeed is in their addressing the lesser but still important figures of the Beat movement.

The Beats’ second hundred pages– “The Beats: Perspectives”– is its best. It emphasizes the era’s poets and the important role of women to both its creative achievement and social consciousness. Poets Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Gregory Corso, Charles Olson and others, not all of them necessarily pegged as Beats, are given brief, respectful treatment. Joyce Brabner’s “Beatnik Chicks” is an eyes-open view to the contributions and hardships, not to mention stereotyping, faced by women of the movement. Brabner defines the “Beat-chick” model as well as the their lack of acceptance by many males in the movement. She gives a shout-out to Carolyn, Cassady, Hettie Jones, Joynce Johnson and others, but no more than a shout out. (readers should dig up Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution for considerations and examples of these women’s work). Pekar and Mary Fleener’s chapter on poet Diane di Prima, first seen in Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri’s spring 2008 edition of Mineshaft (a great publication true to the underground comics and literary spirit…find it here) is a mix of cold reality and spiritualistic surrealism that symbolizes the entire movement.

It’s good to see Pekar involving himself in this kind of counter-culture history. The last run, back in 2008, of Pekar’s American Splendor, the comics that with help from Robert Crumb established him as a storyteller and inspired the 2003 movie starring Paul Giamatti, was something of a disappointment. It was as if Pekar had exhausted ways to make his everyman stories relevant. The Beats gives him worthy material. While not as engaging as his graphic history Students For a Democratic Society (also edited by Buhle), The Beats serves to introduce an American cultural phenomenon to a new audience while giving some of its less well-known players fresh exposure.–Cabbage Rabbit

Comic Genius

You’ve heard it said, even sung: Every picture tells a story. No where is that statement more true than in comics. And no comic illustrator tells deeper, more meaningful, more entertaining, more eye-pleasing stories than Chris Ware. Ware’s comics are so innovative, so artistic, clever and literate that they bridge the gap between pop and fine culture, even as they never pretend to be anything other than cartoons.

Memory serves Ware, coloring his panels with a sort of cartoon nostalgia. His work is out of the great comics tradition: Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, Little Nemo, a host of troubled superheroes, the 1960s and ‘70s underground comics of R. Crumb, Kim Deitch and others, even Mad magazine parodies and Japanese comic knock-offs. Editions of his long-running Acme Novelty Library are introduced with arcane and satiric advertisements straight out of marketing’s quaint past. It’s easy to picture Ware at his drawing desk behind a swirling pair of X-Ray Specs, those that offered suckers the chance to see through the clothing and the world at large. But there’s one big difference: Ware’s actually work. How else to explain his insight?

Since the success of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, Ware has been everywhere; in art galleries on the cover of The New Yorker and the pages of The New York Times, as editor in 2004 of the landmark, all-comics edition of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Number 13 and, more recently, The Best American Comics 2007.

Even as he connects with the comics of our youth, Ware always brings something new to his panels: new illustration styles, new ways of arranging panels, new depth of thought, experience and emotion. His amazing Jimmy Corrigan transcends time and space in a depressingly lonely epic of fathers and sons. His series Rusty Brown is a delayed coming-of-age saga of a man-child in love with collectibles. Quimby the Mouse—he’s no Mickey– avoids a real life as he indulges in the worst pop culture has to offer.

The latest edition of his The Acme Novelty Library, Number 18, pulled from Ware’s Building Stories series, is an Eleanor Rigby tale of a young lady with only a leg-and-a-half, a girl “too eager to be loved” who suffers insomnia, the ignorance of an indifferent society and nagging self-doubt of the sort that seems to surface often in Ware’s writing and sketch books. The story’s emotional depth and subject matter, ranging from abortion to xenophobia, make it Ware’s most literate work to date. That release, and the publication of a second volume of his sketchbooks, The Acme Novelty Datebook Volume Two, made good reason for a talk with the artist himself.

Ware doesn’t do many interviews. Notable exceptions include his participation in Todd Hignite’s 2006 study In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists from Yale University Press and a 2001 interview with The New York Times in which he asked its author, “This interview isn’t going to be printed in “question  & answer” format, is it? … Because a lot of my thoughts tend to come out muddled and ungrammatical and, if nothing else, inarticulate.” One of the publicists told us Ware doesn’t like interviews and we guessed it’s because of his work ethic. “Cartooning takes a really, really long time and is hard, lonely work,” he writes in the introduction to The Best American Comics 2007. ”Pages upon hundreds of pages are drawn and thrown away before any writer or artist eventually finds him or her-self. The reader may even reliably calculate that the time it takes to read a comic strip story to the time it took to draw it is roughly 1: 1,000.” Or, as he states in one of the ads from Acme Novelty Library Number 16: “Ruin Your life: Draw Cartoons! And Doom Yourself to Decades of Grinding Isolation Solipsism and Utter Social Disregard.”

So, after frequent and pitiful pleading to Ware’s publishers and publicists, a reply came back saying Ware would agree to an interview–not by phone but by e-mail–limited to five questions. When the answers didn’t come back in the allotted two weeks we became dismal. But, like Rusty Brown in pursuit of a 1970s-era Pillsbury Funny Face Drink Mix figurine of Looney Lemon, we persisted. Unlike Rusty Brown, our patience was rewarded. “Here are my constipated and over-thought answers,“ he wrote. “My apologies for the delay in getting these back to you, but our household was struck by a rather unforgiving bout of bronchitis (due, I think, my daughter’s just starting to attend preschool) so I was “held back” a bit.”

We found the answers to our questions considered and anything but constipated. Self-doubt is an artistic affliction and a number of the entries in the new Datebook are self-critical. How difficult is it for him to maintain confidence in what he’s creating?

Well, all I’ve ever wanted to do with my “art” (whatever that is) is to see as clearly and truthfully as I possibly can — which is, of course an impossibility, — but at least it’s something of a modest goal. I know there are certain artists or writers who try to trick, fool or make fun of their readers or viewers, but that attitude, to me, is almost a sort of intellectual homicide. I also think it’s entirely up to the artist to be his or her own harshest critic; one shouldn’t expect the benefit of the doubt from generations of readers who haven’t been born yet (which I’ve also always thought should be an artist’s “target audience,” if I can employ a ridiculous contemporary cliché.) None of this changes the fact that I’m always dissatisfied with what I do; maybe it’s just a personality quirk, or something.

There’s a line in Ware’s latest Datebook that says, “I couldn’t shake the sensation that I am still a teenager watching it all happen before me—probably due to America’s perpetration of adolescence as ‘culture’…” Rusty Brown and Jimmy Corrigan seem to travel easily between their youth and adult years. We asked Ware to discuss this notion of the child/adult existing simultaneously and where it might have come from.

I guess some of this originates with listening to my grandmother tell me stories about her own childhood and early life; she was such a wonderfully gifted storyteller that the real world would seem to disappear when she was talking and the images she’d create would take over, so vividly in some cases that I remember them now almost as if they happened to me. She inspired me to try and get this same evocative sense into my own stuff, and in doing so I realized that everyone stores away and keeps similar memories and details alive within them, whether they’re readily accessible or not. Our consciousnesses are as fluid as water in a bathtub; we can go anywhere, anytime we want in our minds, and do, all the time.

Also, I guess I’ve realized as I’ve become older that our perceptions aren’t always the most reliable reporters of reality. This fact was really highlighted for me at the last high school reunion I attended: my forty-year old friends and I were sitting looking at an old yearbook from our fifth grade year and we all agreed that not only did the pictures of the eighth graders still look imposing and frightening to us, but that when we looked at each other, we couldn’t even see our forty year old faces, only those of the children we once were. I realized that something very strange was happening there — as adults, I’m convinced that not only our memories but also our mental generalizations of experience (i.e. words and concepts) affect and even distort our perceptions. Comics are a sort of in-between tightrope walk of all of these things.

Architecture, often of the unique or classic sort, serves an important role in Ware’s work. The narrative from the new book opens “Once upon a time, there was a building…” and closes with the same building. Why has Ware made architecture such an integral part of his work?

Again, it probably comes back to memories of the house I grew up in and memories of my grandmother’s house; I navigate those places almost daily in my mind, and the three-dimensional “maps” I’ve internalized are all also filled with stories, so for better or for worse I frequently try to work that way when I’m writing and drawing fiction. In the case of the New York Times strip, it was very specifically designed to be about one day in the life of a building itself, and so began and ended with images of it (as well as changed orientation in relation to the sun as it passed overheard, as pretentious as that is to admit.)

One of Ware’s most attractive features is the design of his pages: various sized panels, small panels clustered in larger panels as if to point out detail, full pages with arrows leading from scene/text to the next scene. Where did these design elements come from?

Well, again, not to flog this notion to death, but it really all comes from trying to work in a way that most closely resembles the way I seem to remember things and relate them to each other, as well as to reflect the texture of the world as I’ve come to know it; I want there to be a certain sense of detail and intricate level of resolution of information that’s analogous to my experience of the natural world. I think this idea of “the natural world influencing art” esthetic was sort of wiped out in the 20th century by modernism (or “art influencing the natural world”) and I guess I just feel more of a sympathy with the former, that’s all. I am not, however, trying to confuse anyone, but simply to recreate the same sense of contradictory certainty and uncertainty I have in my own experiences. Since I’m working visually, sometimes that looks unnecessarily complicated, though I’d hope by the content and presentation that it’s at least somewhat obvious that I’m not making fun of the reader. I work entirely by feeling, however, and so I trust what feels right as I’m working.

Ware says he’s looking ahead to Acme Novelty Library Number 19 and will continue work on both the Building Stories and Rusty Brown series. His response to a question on his editing comics anthologies reflects his view on the current state of the art.

I don’t think I’ll be editing any more anthologies again very soon after the last Best American Comics; I was afraid after the McSweeney’s issue I’d edited that my foisting my taste and love of all of those artists’ recent work twice in such a relatively short time would be something of an overload. It seems that my interest in experimental cartoonists who write about more or less real-life experiences isn’t necessarily reflective of the general comics readership, which is of course fine; I just genuinely believe I presented some of the best work published in 2006, and I was actually surprised by the varied quality of most of it once it was all gathered together. John Updike very eloquently articulated the difference between genre writing versus non-genre writing in a recent New Yorker book review, which bears repeating: “Thrillers, as we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract: there will be violent events, we will go places our parents didn’t take us, the protagonist will conquer and survive, and social order will, however temporarily, be restored. The reader’s essential safety … will not be breached. The world around him and the world he reads about remain distinct; the partition between them is not undermined by any connection to depths within himself.” It’s curious to me that the traditional genre content of the comic books which I grew up loving has now become an established part of mainstream culture, though I don’t think cartoonists trying to write human-scale stories in any way threatens that extremely widely-read establishment. I’m simply pleased that comics have started to show that they can plumb those sorts of depths, too.

Judge of Character

It’s the commonly used coffee house criteria to define enjoyable fiction: “I identified with the characters.” If we recognize ourselves or others we know in a story, we’re more susceptible to being drawn in. But the characters in The Book Of Other People, an anthology of character sketches/short stories, aren’t exactly people you would want to identify with. There’s one person in the story “The Liar” you might want to be; that is if you have a Messiah complex. Even then, you might not want to identify with this Jesus, seeing that he has doubts about who he really is. Another character you might identify with is a monster. Really.

This gaggle of character sketches, most of them about less than admirable characters, is edited by Zadie Smith, author of Beauty and a couple other novels. Smith brought together 23 (mostly) fellow celebrity writers and instructed them to “make someone up” (the book’s proceeds benefit a children’s writing program in New York). We suspect that some of these characters aren’t made up as much as they are actual sketches of people the writers know. Take Jonatahn Safran Foer’s “Rhoda” who’s the type of smothering, busy-body mother (“Have a cookie,” is the story’s first sentence) of the type we all know.

In style, these sketches are out of The New Yorker school of short stories. Indeed, half a dozen of the stories here, including Smith’s own, were first published in the magazine and many of the book’s contributors are familiar to New Yorker readers. As such, the collection is diverse in class, race and setting. We’re not told so much what the characters look like as we are told what they’re thinking. Sometimes what they’re wearing is important as in Vendela Vida’s “Soliel” in which the lingerie-as-evening-wear look suggests feminine motives. In a sense, the collection defines the current state of the short story. Apparently, one of the characteristics that define today’s short stories is the unlikable personalities of its protagonists.

So we have Heidi Julavits’ “Judge Gladys Parks-Schutlz”, an “insincerely cheery” woman, a judge known “for her imperviousness to human context,” a person who is interested only in outcomes. Then there is A.L. Kennedy’s “Frank,” a man whose obsessive desire for repetition and familiarity is so important it drives his wife away. ZZ Packer’s “Gideon” is a gutless guy who collects crickets and doesn’t have the conviction to out his inter-racial relationship. In George Saunders’ “Puppy,” you won’t like the suburban mom with a van full of kids out to buy the puppy, or the white trash family who has the puppy available. You certainly wouldn’t identify with David Mitchell’s “Judith Castle.” You‘d never throw yourself at anyone like that. You may not end up liking any of these characters. But you’ll certainly enjoy the stories they inhabit.

The likable, innocent characters here are either children or child-like. No, not the selfish children packed into the suburban mom’s van on their way to buy a puppy. The 11-year-old who accompanies Soliel to Lake Tahoe in pursuit of a good time is extremely sympathetic, which makes the model set for her even worse. Chris Ware’s graphic childhood of “Jordan Wellington Lint” (the book has two stories in comic form) follows little Lint from his earliest perceptions on to more impressionable experiences. You won’t like what these experiences make of him. Probably the most loveable character is, well, the most loved, a crazed sex addict named “Magda Mandela” who announces to a group of construction workers, “I have a condom. Line up. I am ready.” But you wouldn’t identify with her (would you?).

The more exotic locations are populated with the best-drawn characters. Edwidge Danticat’s “Lele” is inhabited with seemingly respectable Haitians existing in a world of extreme heat, exploding frogs and a crooked judiciary. Adam Thirwell’s “Nigora”—she’s described as “a minor character”– is sympathetic until you start to question who fathered her unborn child and why she’s decides to carry it to an untimely birth.

The parodies—people you can laugh at—might be the most enjoyable. Cartoonist Daniel Clowes’ comic character “Justin M. Damiano,” chief film critic for, faces an ethical decision after learning not to like anything. The author blurbs collected in Nick Hornby’s “J. Johnson,” with illustrations by Posy Simmonds, read a lot like the contributors’ bios at the end of this book, complete with those who were “short-listed” for various literary prizes.

Then there’s that monster in Toby’s Litt’s story. He has little sense of himself, no idea of what he looks like, little memory and no clue as to his sexual drive. I don’t know about you, but there’s someone that I can identify with.—Cabbage Rabbit

The Book Of Other People edited by Zadie Smith; Penguin Books, paperback 287 pages, $15

A version of this review was published in The Inland Empire Weekly