Doom, Gloom Over Soon?

Despite those who think the boat will right itself in 2009, the guys who saw the iceberg early continue to think the ship is sinking. Columnist, professor of economics and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman:

The fact is that recent economic numbers have been terrifying, not just in the United States but around the world. Manufacturing, in particular, is plunging everywhere. Banks aren’t lending; businesses and consumers aren’t spending. Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.

Naysayer economist Nouriel Roubini:

….the worst is still ahead of us. In the next few months, the macroeconomic news and earnings/profits reports from around the world will be much worse than expected, putting further downward pressure on prices of risky assets, because equity analysts are still deluding themselves that the economic contraction will be mild and short.

Happy New Year…–Cabbage Rabbit

Greed Between the Lines

The struggle this English major goes through to understand the current financial mess received some help Sunday when the New York Times published this excellent piece from Michael Lewis and David Einhorn. The two-part explanation of how the economic world has changed and what should be done about it rang true with our pro-regulatory thinking. In the first section we read this regarding “greed” as the cause of the whole mess:

The Madoff scandal echoes a deeper absence inside our financial system, which has been undermined not merely by bad behavior but by the lack of checks and balances to discourage it. “Greed” doesn’t cut it as a satisfying explanation for the current financial crisis. Greed was necessary but insufficient; in any case, we are as likely to eliminate greed from our national character as we are lust and envy. The fixable problem isn’t the greed of the few but the misaligned interests of the many.

That’s right, greed is a shared trait (see Thorstein Veblen’s classic The Theory of the Leisure Class for his view on the “barbaric “ roots of our need to accumulate). Nor can we blame the crisis on a few greedy people or on greed itself. In December, we interviewed Redlands University economics professor Lorenzo Garbo, who leads a class entitled “On Greed: Western and Eastern Enlightenment.” He told us something quite similar about the pervasiveness of greed and its role in the current crisis:

“I think everybody has been following her/his self interest, including the public. In its own myopic way, the public has been taking advantage of whatever greed was happening at every level of the financial markets.”

If everybody is capable of greed, it isn’t going away. Instead, let’s watch for it, put rules in effect that make it difficult to pursue at the unknowing expense of others and punish it when it takes illegal turns. Garbo sees a silver-lining—maybe–if we learn from our mistakes:

“Now we can gain a new understanding of how the system works and protections can be put in place to avoid a reoccurrence of the same situation. I have a positive attitude towards what can come out of it, even though we need to watch out, because greed and delusion have not ceased to be fundamental human traits.”

Lewis and Einhorn aren’t so optimistic, based on what’s happened so far:

And here’s the most incredible thing of all: 18 months into the most spectacular man-made financial calamity in modern experience, nothing has been done to change that, or any of the other bad incentives that led us here in the first place.

Say what you will about our government’s approach to the financial crisis, you cannot accuse it of wasting its energy being consistent or trying to win over the masses. In the past year there have been at least seven different bailouts, and six different strategies. And none of them seem to have pleased anyone except a handful of financiers.

Is that what we want, a bail-out that please no one except a handful of financiers? Lewis and Einhorn make several suggestions as to preventing this debacle from happening again, most having to do with the cozy relationship between Wall Street regulators and Wall Street financiers. Read both articles. You won’t be happy with the way things are going.—Cabbage Rabbit

Freddie Hubbard, 1938-2008

I first saw Freddie Hubbard in 1970 shortly after the release of Red Clay. The band, though not quite as stellar as on the recording (if memory serves and it doesn’t always) did include saxophonist Joe Henderson and Ron Carter playing electric bass and the show, beyond Hubbard’s usual brashness, was notable for a (very) long bass solo that Carter played through his monitor when the rest of the sound system went down. After that, there was a number of club dates and large venue appearances. One notable mid-70s appearance in Milwaukee that included the great drummer Victor Lewis assured us that Hubbard was still his own man even as his recorded work was reflecting evil commercial pressure from his record company. The last time I saw Hubbard was at the Long Beach Jazz Festival sometime around 1999 or 2000. Hubbard hadn’t been heard much because of a chronic split lip and possible other problems and his return was much anticipated as it had been (dto disappointment) a few times before. I interviewed Hubbard for a piece in the L.A. Times over the phone ahead of the show and we talked for almost an hour, the ice clinking audibly in his glass as he refilled it, his speech becoming more and more comfortable. The sun had set when Hubbard took the festival stage and the band ripped into “Eye of the Hurricane” if again, memory serves, an audacious choice for a trumpeter with lip problems. John Beasley was playing piano and Hubbard did his best to make a statement. In the middle of the second tune, Hubbard stormed off. I was backstage to witness the argument between Hubbard and promoter Al Williams and I distinctly remember the profanity and the smell of booze (which wasn’t coming from Williams). What frustration must come of losing one’s artistic abilities, especially someone who was as great as Hubbard. We loved his Blue Note and Atlantic recordings, especially Ready For Freddie with Wayne Shorter and Elvin Jones (Hubbard always responded to better sidemen), Breaking Point with the great saxophonist/flutist James Spaulding and Backlash with its varied styles. Our disappointment with his mid and late ’70s recordings for Columbia made us miss some of his better, later efforts for Prestige and Pablo, but we never lost our taste for his early work. Hubbard was one of the best fluegelhorn players of his generation and, of the trumpeters heard in my lifetime, ranks with Lee Morgan, Woody Shaw, Lester Bowie and, yes, Miles in terms of ability, content and originality.  His trademark “woooo-a-eeee!” exclamation became a standing joke between my Hubbard-loving friends and always brought smiles, whether heard live or on record.  In a sense, Hubbard faded from view for us back in the late ’70s even as he  remained on our turntable. We missed him then and we’ll miss him now.–Cabbage Rabbit

The Predator State

Yeah, yeah, it’s a long wandering mess that seems to change focus as much as a bifocaled grandmother. But my cover story on greed and Americans’ changing views of capitalism in the January 1 issue of the Inland Empire Weekly , meant to be a (favorable) review of four recent books on the economy and workings of capitalism, could have stood inclusion of James K. Galbraith’s The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too. Galbraith inflicts significant damage on free-market, Reagan-era ideals and destroys the notion that income inequality is necessary for productivity gains. His point–that liberal politicians still cling to a notion of the free market place as a higher calling (see the section “Another God That Failed”) even as many conservatives have abandoned it–makes an argument against the kind of pragmatism towards free markets that recent Democratic nominees have displayed.  Galbraith’s book is not easily read. It’s not technically difficult but tends to muddle what should be perfectly clear (where have all the good editors gone?). But the facts remain. We need to kill the idea that free markets and unregulated capitalism are perfect systems.  And Galbraith’s reality-based book gives us a weapon to do just that.  —Cabbage Rabbit

A Room of His Own

The death of the great pianist Hank Jones on Sunday, May 16 at the age of 91 has been followed by controversy. New York Times reporters Corey Kilgannon and Andy Newman visited Jones’ room at 108th St. and Broadway in NYC after his death and painted a picture of a spartan existence. It’s unclear whether or not the description of Jones’ living conditions in a 12 x 12 foot room were meant to invoke sympathy or make some kind of statement on the fate of older jazz musicians in today’s culture. What it did was release a barrage of negative comments.

The reporters speak of Jones “unmade bed” ( he died in a Bronx hospice), a clutter of sheet music, awards and recordings of Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. The closet was filled with “designer neck ties and sharp-looking suits” and there was a book of Sherlock Holmes mysteries on the bed stand. The Yamaha electric piano Jones used for practice sported a pair of head phones.

Some who wrote comments took the bait: “No one commented on how sad this is. Sad that he lived alone, sad that he died alone, sad that his life of charm and sophistication (the music, the recordings, the clothes, the elegance, even in a simple room) appeared not to contain the many things most people cherish.” But many were angry. “There is something very untoward about going into this gentleman’s room less than two days after he passed away and opening up his life to the entire world, presumably before he has had a chance to be mourned and buried by his family and friends,” spoke one of the more polite. I was at first saddened, then outraged, to read the Hank Jones piece by Corey Kilgannon and Andy Newman. Why was it deemed appropriate — under any circumstance—to compromise the privacy of and report on and photograph the dismantling of a man’s life possessions; and to do so in such an-ill fitting, misleading and exploitive (sic) manner and tone. ”

There’s a lot of insight to be gained from these comments and the Rabbit encourages reading them. Especially interesting is the attempt by Kilgannon to explain his motivation (comment #34) and the following comment (#35) from renowned bassist and Jones’ collaborator Charlie Haden and wife Ruth Cameron ripping our intrepid reporter a new one (also #30). There’s a long comment from Jones’ long time manger Jean-Pierre LeDuc, an even longer one from his surviving niece and nephew and a couple from his close friends who provide context to Mr. Jones’ living conditions (#26 and #32). Seems he had a home in upstate New York, a wife who lived in an assisted care facility and frequent contact with friends and family.

The Rabbit thinks that a man as gentlemanly and graceful (like his playing) as Mr. Jones would have been confused, if not disturbed, by this attention (I was introduced to Mr. Jones once and heard him perform a handful of times). Those we knew who knew Mr. Jones spoke of him with the highest respect. He was a gentleman in all regards.

I’ve found myself projecting my own thoughts on this scenario. Though acclaimed, he was less visible in the formidible shadows of his younger brothers Thad and Elvin and never once, in true gentlemanly style, seemed to mind. Some of his most heard work was in the background–accompanying Marilyn Monroe’s famous birthday song to President Kennedy and, for some of us our first exposure to piano-playing of the type, his work at CBS, notably with the Captain Kangaroo show. Of course, the jazz audience is well-familiar with his work, considering the bulk of his recorded output dating back to the 1040s.

The New York Times story made us think of him as something of an aesthetic and ascetic, someone who lived modestly and in service to his art. Of course, this notion is completely false. Jones was anything but a recluse, traveling and performing late into his life. And he certainly wasn’t invisible to the jazz audience considering the sizeable extent of his recording career, especially in his senior years, not to mention a life-long commitment to live performance .

The whole affair made us realize the power of printed stories, the importance of complete context and how much our conception of artists is connected to what we wish they were. It’s important to connect the music and the musician but it is also important to separate the two as well. AS toi the former, here’s hoping someone somewhere heard a full accounting from Mr. Jones  regarding his formative years in Detroit, his stints with Hot Lips Page and Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, his role of accompanist for great vocalists, his ability to record with all kinds of musicians (remember the Great Jazz Trio when he worked with Tony Williams, Buster Williams and Al Foster among many others?) his views on what’s changed between 1945 and 1995. As fpor the latter, here’s hoping I can find my copy of Hank Jones Live at Maybeck Recital Hall.–Cabbage Rabbit