Friday, September 30, 2011

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Orchestra

No retrospective of the Great American Songbook would be complete without a look at modern masters of the form.  There are several to choose from, and all of them have much to recommend them.  Michael Feinstein (born 1956) is a wonderful scholar of the material and a noted Grammy-winning performer, as well.  Harry Connick (born 1967) is perhaps the most aggressive seeker of Frank Sinatra’s throne, and he, too, has much to commend him.  But neither of these artists, talented as they are, have managed to quite capture the true sparkle of the 1930s, the era when this music was most inventive, most vital and spoke in the most uniquely American dialect.  Feinstein is at times too precious and too mannered in a post-War supper-club style; Connick with his brassy bombast too closely aligned with a Sinatra-esque Las Vegas vibe.  Both artists understand the music, but it seems to them grafted on, a niche they occupy rather than an artistic mission.
For this correspondent, the finest modern interpreter of the American musical canon is Vince Giordano, who fronts the magnificent Nighthawks Orchestra.  Giordano, born in Brooklyn in 1952, is an avid (one may say rabid) scholar of the sound of the 1920s and 1930s, and has a unique genius for this American idiom.  Vince plays the bass saxophone and is the Nighthawks’ only vocalist.  He uses his magnificent library of more than 60,000 arrangements to capture that unique sound, and, when performing live, introduces the sets.  Always at his side is an authentic 1920s era microphone.
Vince and the Nighthawks have performed at many of New York City’s most famous musical venues, including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the 92nd Street Y and the Red Blazer.  For a long time they were a weekly feature at the lost, lamented supper club the Cajun in Chelsea; they are now at Sofia’s Restaurant, 221 West 46th Street, every Monday and Tuesday from 8:00 – 11:00 p.m.
And it is not just lucky New Yorkers who can hear Giordano and the Nighthawks.  Vince’s playing with the Dick Hyman Orchestra can be heard on the soundtracks of several Woody Allen films; he provided music for the CD celebrating the release of Kevin Kline’s Cole Porter 2004 biopic, De-Lovely; he can be heard on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) and Johnny Depp’s Public Enemies (2009).  And fans of the HBO series, Boardwalk Empire (which features Vince as the bandleader) should know that the soundtrack album has just been released.  In addition, Vince and the Nighthawks are frequent guests on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.
It is here that your correspondent must confess to great admiration for Vince – both as a man and for his brilliant musicianship. He has approached his craft and this musical idiom with a sense of mission, and his love for his art is infectious.  I have followed his career for more than a decade, and have caught his shows at the Cajun, Sofia’s, the Red Blazer and Carnegie Hall.  Listening to the Nighthawks has been one of the great joys of my adulthood – his music is so energetic, so freewheeling and so much fun.  It is no exaggeration at all to say that he has made me grin till my face hurt, and cry tears of joy.
So what, one wonders, is it that is so unique about the Giordano sound?  It is a puzzle not easily solved for the music is so seamless, the sound so natural.  Listening to Vince is akin to hearing a consummate artist married to the right material – it becomes an extension of the man and he becomes, in a way, the music.
A perfectly fine example of this is the great Louis Armstrong (1901-1971).  Armstrong was not a great singer, but everything about him, from his phrasing and his delivery to his peerless trumpeting, made the man music.  Vince has this same gift – when playing the Great American Songbook, Vince becomes the music.
Watching him play is an unqualified delight.  Unlike most of the post-rock era musicians who behave as if they are suffering, or bearing the great weight of their ‘art,’ Vince singing or playing is consumed by joy.  This cat grins, and when he plays the bass, he is dancing with himself.  He is an example to every modern musician and every lover of music.
Vince has recorded many fine CDs, all of which are available directly through him.  My personal favorite is Cheek to Cheek, a collection of songs associated with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  His rendition of The Carioca is simply the finest instrumental recording of the song, ever.  His take on The Continental is perhaps nearly as ethereal as the latter Astaire-Oscar Peterson recording, and Let Yourself Go is Vince at his most energetic and fun-loving best.
His Cotton Club Revisited includes a delightful Stormy Weather and the hyper-jazzed Minnie the Moocher.  His Harlem Holiday is nearly enough to make you want a holiday of your own, and Get Yourself a New Broom and Sweep the Blues Away a tonic for most anything that ails you.
Quality Shout! is packed with delights, particularly Mournful Serenade, Sugar Food Stomp and Stoppin’ the Traffic.  Quality Shout! Is one of Giordano’s most personal recordings; the tunes selected are off-the-radar to all but the most dedicated hot-music devotees, and it was recorded using a small number of microphones, creating balances acoustically and by positioning the musicians to best recreate a late 1920s sound.
For Vince’s album The Goldkette Project, he worked with Bill Challis, who was the staff arranger for Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman.  Challis was the man behind both of those band’s most jazz-oriented numbers, and he also later wrote for Frankie Trumbauer’s small-group dates with Bix Beiderbecke.  Challis befriended a very young Vince and his siblings, and The Goldkette Project is a labor of love.  That love can be heard in every number.  Particularly adept tunes include Sometimes I’m Happy, Idolizing, Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down and Slow River.
Vince recently broadened his musical net by tackling the Big Band hits of the later 1930s and 40s.  His album Moonlight Serenade is a musical ode to the war years, and his In the Mood, Moonlight Serenade and You Made Me Love You are simply magnificent.
These discs are all available at $17 each (which includes postage and tax) with a check or money order made out to Vince Giordano at 1316 Elm Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11230-5916.  I would be hard pressed to think of a better way to spend your money.

Coming soon to the Jade Sphinx, a special, two-part interview with Vince Giordano!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Sinatra Paradox

We continue examining the voices that make up the Great American Songbook with a look at Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), the most polarizing figure of the classic American pop era.  Polarizing, I think, because more than any of the other figures we have looked at thus far, Sinatra’s persona is the one most imitated by his followers; indeed, there is an entire “Sinatra Way of Life” that inspired several generations.  Sinatra has had, for adults, much the same bad influence as the Beatles had on children.
However, it’s not for us to judge an artist’s work – and Sinatra was certainly an artist – by his personal life.  (Indeed, our canon of artistic heroes would indeed become a small one!)  And Sinatra’s iconic status is undeniable.  He was the last “superstar” of the Great American Songbook, and the last of his ilk to continue producing hit records after the advent of the rock era, when music descended into hopeless juvenilia.  Even for those for whom music begins and ends with the rock era, Sinatra is a presence to be reckoned with.
Sinatra began his singing career in the Big Band era, fronting for both Harry James and Tommy Dorsey.  He was often dubbed The Voice, and listening to his clear, clean and sweet tones, it is easy to see why.  His voice was certainly the most honeyed of his era, and listening to his late 1940s recordings of such songs as All or Nothing at All, There’s No Business Like Show Business and Why Was I Born, illustrates why legions of teenage girls (the Bobby Soxers) fell under his thrall.
However, the most fascinating thing about the voice of the early Sinatra is that its beauty is the only thing it has to commend it.  He was not a particularly affecting singer, and, unlike, say, Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire, he didn’t really connect with a song and what it meant.  He was all talent and no technique.
Sinatra found his incredible popularity begin to wane in the early 1950s.  He returned to the concert stage after a two year absence in Hartford in 1950, but his vocal chords hemorrhaged onstage at the Copacabana later that year.  It seemed as if his meteoric career was about to burn out.
Then something happened.  He landed a key supporting role in From Here to Eternity (1953) and won the Oscar.  His renewed popularity did much to renew his vitality, and he signed a contract with Capitol Records, where he worked with some of the industry’s finest musicians, including Billy May and Nelson Riddle (the two men most associated with the Sinatra Sound).
And it is here, really the second act of Sinatra’s career, that Sinatra the artist emerged and the paradox begins.  Paradox because after 1950, Sinatra’s voice was never the same – it has lost its beauty and sweetness; but, he also became a much better singer.
What Sinatra learned was what Astaire and Crosby had known instinctually – that phrasing, lyricism and telling the story of a song is the final piece of the puzzle in making a great singer.  It was during this period that some of his signature recordings – I’ve Got the World on a String, Love and Marriage, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Three Coins in the Fountain, South of the Boarder, Hey Jealous Lover – were all recorded.  These were not simply songs knocked out after a few rehearsals, but deep and personal mediations on the narrative of each number, delivered in a style best matching the overarching story. 
Sinatra was able to maintain this winning streak – professionally and artistically – throughout the 1950s and 1960s, despite changing national tastes in music.  In the 1970s and 1980s, he recorded a string of epics or anthems (including the unfortunately ubiquitous My Way), and started his own record label, Reprise.  But the bloom had long since faded from the rose.
Frank Sinatra is a remarkable study for those interested in the history of American popular song – he was the greatest singer who ever lost his voice.

Tomorrow – Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fred Astaire

We continue examining the voices that make up the Great American Songbook with a look at Fred Astaire (1899-1987).  Your correspondent must confess, upfront, his boundless admiration and affection for Astaire – indeed, it is my firm belief that when all good men die, as a reward they then become Fred Astaire.
At this point, many of my readers are wondering why Astaire, one of the protean dance figures of the 20th Century, is included in a review of the voices of the Great American Songbook.  Well, I have included Astaire because, not only is he the greatest dancer to appear in motion pictures, but he was also a singer of subtle and distinct phrasing, who knew what a popular song needed and delivered it with a (seemingly) effortless panache.  In fact it was Irving Berlin (1888-1989) – who, along with Cole Porter (1891-1964) and George Gershwin (1898-1937) comprises the trinity of 20th Century songwriting genius – who said his favorite singer was Fred Astaire.  Several of Berlin’s signature tunes, including Dancing Cheek to Cheek, Steppin’ Out With My Baby, and Puttin’ On the Ritz – were all introduced by Astaire.
So, for the purposes of this exercise, we will overlook Astaire’s monumental contribution to the dance (which, admittedly, is rather like writing about Saturn without mentioning its rings).  Nor will we take especial interest in his consummate style – indeed, cineastes debate who was the most debonair man in American cinema: Astaire or Cary Grant (1904-1986).  While many cite Grant’s well-tailored ease, there was something about Astaire’s carriage and poise that bespoke magic.  It is possible to derive pleasure simply by watching Astaire walk … and snippets of Astaire walking down Fifth Avenue in Easter Parade (1948) should be required viewing before leaving any respectable school.
Astaire is famous for his “white tie and tails,” an ensemble which he personally loathed.  But Astaire was more than formal wear: his leisure clothes were relaxed and unaffected yet elegant.  An unusually thin man (co-star Bing Crosby said he could “spit through him”), Astaire was blessed with the ability to inhabit his clothes rather than having them wear him. 
Instead, let’s look at Astaire the actor and the singer.  He entered movies dancing beside Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady (1933).  It was really little more than a cameo; and he and Ginger Rogers were supporting players in their first film together, Flying Down to Rio (1933).  He and Rogers (1911-1995) were sensations in that film, and they went on to make a total of 10 films together, including Swing Time (1936), Top Hat (1935), and Shall We Dance (1937).  The Astaire-Rogers corpus encompasses some of the finest American musical films ever made, and is essential to an understanding of the evolution of American musical movies.
Astaire in the 1930s is a marvel.  His performances are simple and easy – he exudes enthusiasm, high spirits and an unaffected sophistication.  He seems almost boyish and at times brash – he is irresistible.  And, aside from his acting, his singing has a unique lyricism.  (Jerome Kern would consider him the supreme male interpreter of his songs).
And then … something happened.  The 1930s were Astaire’s first heyday, but he lost considerable ground in the early 1940s.  It’s not that he did not make good films – his Holiday Inn (1942) and Blue Skies (1946) with Bing Crosby are quite terrific – and some of his loveliest dance partners come from this era, including Rita Hayworth and Eleanor Powell. 
What happened, really, was the national zeitgeist changed.  In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, it was important for Americans to have, I think, a sophisticated ideal.  White tie and tails and penthouses and cocktails were the stuff of dreams, and Astaire personified an ideal that many aspired to, but could never achieve.
With World War II, the struggle against Nazism was a struggle carried mainly by the Average Joe.  In fact, I believe that the 1940s were Crosby’s decade more than Astaire’s because Crosby was able to capture that Average Joe quality of that moment in ways that were simply beyond Astaire’s temperament and ability. 
And so, after playing second fiddle to Crosby again in Blue Skies, Astaire retired … only to reappear a short two years later, teaming with Judy Garland to make the now classic Easter Parade.  This film started a new collaborative period with MGM, and a new phase of his career.
During this second chorus for Astaire, he made some of his finest films, including Royal Wedding (1951), Funny Face (1957), Silk Stockings (1957) and, perhaps his masterpiece, The Band Wagon (1953).  Many of his most famous ‘trick’ dances – including dancing on the walls and ceiling, hoofing with a hat stand, and dancing with a legion of disembodies shoes – occur in these films.
Curiously, though, there is a profound change in Astaire in his post Easter Parade films.  His dancing is more fluid, more sensuous, more ornate than his movements of the 1930s, but his acting seems to have constricted somewhat, as if letting lose in the dance left too little energy for fun in his performances.  The Astaire persona of the 1940s and 1950s is a little tighter, a little more crabbed than the buoyant boy of the 1930s.
After Silk Stockings, Astaire went on to triumphs in television, winning an Emmy for one of his many TV specials, and straight acting roles in a wide range of films, both good and bad.  But nothing could take away the memory of his greatest achievements.
Astaire’s artistic contribution to the American culture is a unique one.  Not only was he the preeminent popular dancer of his day, but Astaire was a gifted film actor and, most important here, one of the great interpreters of popular song.  His movements were music, his speaking voice had a unique rhythm, his singing a gift of phrasing and style.  Fred Astaire is, simply put, the greatest artist to appear in American musical films.

Tomorrow – the Frank Sinatra Paradox!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bing Crosby

Any list of the most important 20th Century artists would have to include Harry Lillis "Bing" Crosby (1903 – 1977) – and he would quite possibly be at the top of it.  Nor do I simply mean a list of great or influential recording artists, despite the fact that Crosby currently has over half a billion records in circulation.  No, it is because Crosby’s voice and demeanor helped define the American consciousness and identity; he personified an idealized American Everyman.  And when seriously assessing the importance of the Great American Songbook, it is impossible to overlook his Olympian presence.
In this post-rock age, Crosby is the ultimate forgotten man.  This is all the more incredible considering that he is the direct inspiration for artists as diverse as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.  He is the popular singer with the most Academy Award wins and nominations (in fact, he is one of only four actors ever nominated twice for playing the same character).  Between 1927 and 1962 he scored 369 charted records under his own name -- yes, 369 charted records.  That record has never been beaten; indeed, no one has come close.  Even the most diverse musical performers are shy by more than 100:  Paul Whiteman (220), Frank Sinatra (209), Elvis Presley (149), Glen Miller (129), Nat “King” Cole (118), Louis Armstrong (85) and the Beatles (68).  In fact, Bing continued to have an average of 16 charted singles per year through 1950, peaking in 1939 with 27 (beaten by the Beatles in 1964, with 30), and never falling below double-digits until 1951, when he placed nine singles in the top 25. 
Crosby also perfected the template by which recording artists built larger and more multi-faceted careers.  It was Bing who first conquered recordings, then radio or television and then Hollywood.  This was the model followed by Sinatra in the 1940s, Presley in the 1950s and Barbra Streisand in the 1960s.  Though each of them was successful in these endeavors, no recording artist has matched Crosby’s long-term success and influence as an all-media star.
For those of us who are interested in statistics, Bing was:
  • The first full-time vocalist ever signed to an orchestra
  • The man with the most popular recording ever, White Christmas, the only single to make American pop charts 20 times
  • The man who scored the most number one hits ever, 38, compared with 24 by the Beatles and 18 by Elvis Presley
  • The only pre-1980 film star to rank as the number one box-office attraction five times (1944-48), and between 1934 and 1954 he scored in the Top Ten 15 times
  • He was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor three times and won for Going My Way
  • He financed and popularized the development of tape, revolutionizing the recording industry
But, finally, what does all of this mean?  Is popular success the definition of an artist?  Do record sales translate into aesthetic achievement?  Obviously not, for if that were the case then, good Lord, we would degrade the label artist by using it on the largely talent-free figures that swamp the post-rock scene.  (It is significant that the greatest talents of popular American musicians clustered in a period when music was written by and for adults, and not undulating children and adults unwilling to challenge themselves with melody, lyric, sentiment and sophistication.)
Bing was a great artist for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, he had one of the most pitch-perfect voices during the golden era of the Great American Songbook.  More importantly, he was a terrific jazz singer, particularly in his 1930s recordings.  He was perhaps at his best in duos, and his duets with Connie Boswell, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire and Rosemary Clooney have a collaborative quality that these artists were never able to achieve with another partner. 
Bing was also the first artist to really make use of one of the most revolutionary musical tools – the microphone.   Bing knew that the microphone was a passport to intimacy, and he was perhaps the first great American popular singer who sang to his audience, rather than at them. 
Like most great artists, he was able to achieve a corpus of work that is both timeless and reflective of the time in which it was created.  Many Bing aficionados, like myself, prefer the Jazz era Crosby of the 1930s, while others find greatest satisfaction with the American troubadour Bing of the 1940s and 50s.  Bing managed to change with the times (until the advent of rock), finding the mode of delivery most resonant to people of three decades, and then defining it. 
As a screen actor, Bing had few peers.  His film work in pictures as diverse as Country Girl (1954), where he plays an alcoholic actor, and as a journalist in Little Boy Lost (1953) is remarkably adept.  His career as a musical comedy star is of a very high order, and is on view in films as different as Holiday Inn (1942), High Society (1956) and Anything Goes (1936).  He was also a gifted comedian; indeed, the most fascinating thing about the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope (1903-2003) dynamic in a series of seven Road pictures, is that they are cinema’s only evenly-matched duo.  Most comedy teams pair ‘funnyman’ and ‘straight man,’ but Hope and Crosby were never separated by this dynamic, as each were farceurs in their own way.  Thus, movie magic is made.
Crosby is the subject of an excellent biography by Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams-the Early Years, 1903-1940, published in 2001.  It is the first volume of a two-volume life, and is highly recommended to serious students of jazz, American music and the history of pop culture.
In the final analysis, we must rate Crosby as the consummate popular artist of the 20th Century.  I believe his remarkable oeuvre lays in wait for future generations to rediscover, and when it comes, the Bing Crosby renaissance will be a formidable one.  One can only hope.
Tomorrow – Fred Astaire!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Every Sunday a Big Broadcast

Jade Sphinx readers know of my deep love and respect for what has come to be known as The Great American Songbook.  This is the truly classic American sound, created at the apex of what was the American Century.  Such brilliant creative artists as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg and Arthur Freed created the songs America sang for nearly 40 years.  Equally brilliant interpretative artists, such as Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo, Rudy Vallee, the Boswell Sisters and Judy Garland gave voice to these immortal tunes.
This sophisticated sound defined an age sadly gone.  The impact of this loss upon our culture has been incalculable.  The sense of fun, of elegance, of poetry and romance, of melodic complexity, let alone of yearning or idealism, are missing completely from contemporary music.  The cultural missteps of America have been many, but few as bewildering or destructive as the closing of the American Songbook.
Fortunately, once discovered, this music is usually savored.  One such connoisseur is Rich Conaty, host of The Big Broadcast, heard every Sunday on WFUV.FM (90.7 on the dial).  The Big Broadcast also streams, and boasts audience members as far as Australia.   Conaty has been a staple of the radio dial for more than 30 years, and his program is a fresh, fun and smart as ever.
The Big Broadcast focuses on my favorite era of the music – the sound of the 1930s.  This decade is perhaps the high water mark for American popular culture; a time when music, film and radio created the American Voice and defined the Everyman.  Listening to the Big Broadcast on Sundays is a chance to visit this mythic and vanished era.
Mr. Conaty will also be appearing at the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention on Friday, October 21st, at the Holiday Inn North at Newark International Airport.  Mr. Conaty took time from his busy broadcast schedule to speak with us.
Please first tell us a little about your background?
I was born in Astoria, New York on November 30, 1954.  I was glued to the TV growing up, and got my Mom to take me to Howdy Doody, Johnny Jellybean and The Sandy Becker Show.
You are a young man – surely you would’ve grown up listening to The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  How did you detour into 1920s and 30s music?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of the people I play where still performing: Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, the Mills Brothers, and Joe Venuti were all working.  I was introduced to the music through Mark Adler's Genesis of a Record program on the Hofstra University station.  But I was also a fan of Ed Beach on WRVR, Joe Franklin and Danny Stiles.
What were some of the first vintage records you bought?
The first 78 I remember finding was "Who Dat up Dere?" by Woody Herman, a record "too new" for me to play on The Big BroadcastGenesis of a Record and the rest got me interested in even earlier things.  I bought a Victrola at a shop near the 59th Street Bridge, and then started picked up 78s at Merit Music on West 46th.
The Big Broadcast has had quite a history.  I remember listening to it in college on WNEW, when they had a Great American Songbook format.  Can you tell us a little about traveling around the dial?
I was a staff announcer at Hofstra's WVHC in the summer of 1971, between Junior and Senior year of high school.  I picked Fordham because of its radio station, and started at WFUV in late 1972.  The first Big Broadcast was the following January.  Jim Lowe gave me my first paying job at WNEW-AM in 1983.  Not a bad place to start!  I followed the format, and continued doing The Big Broadcast on WFUV.  In 1992, I moved the show to WQEW, where I worked for almost five years.  The Big Broadcast has been on every Sunday since January 1973, almost two thousand weeks.
While a show like The Big Broadcast seems unique now, I remember there was a huge ‘nostalgia craze’ in the 60s and 70s, when the likes of Crosby or the Marx Brothers had as much cultural currency as contemporary artists.  Why do you think this happened? 
I think partly it was demographics.  Forty years ago there were still plenty of people who remembered the music first-hand.  And younger audiences were being introduced to it through the Busby Berkeley musicals, Our Gang comedies and all the rest on TV.  Plus the cartoons!  I think our continued love for animated cartoons from this period has done a lot to keep the music alive.
Tell us a little about your current audience.  Are most of your listeners New Yorkers, or is most of your listenership from streaming audio?
The online audience is growing, but the majority listen the "old fashioned" way.  But the archived shows give even the locals a chance to catch up.
The Big Broadcast really focuses on the 20s and 30s, hardly ever touching on the 40s or 50s (or even 60s, when Sinatra and Streisand, for example, were still carrying this musical banner).  Why focus on this period?
That's just how the show has evolved.  There's no shortage of great stuff to play from the 20s and 30s.  With a few exceptions, I don't think the newer stuff fits with it.  It's difficult to make a "soft landing" going from then even to the 1940s.  It’s a different and unique sound.
What is your take on the subculture that has recently evolved around this era and its music?  Things like the Governor’s Island Jazz Party and young people dressing like Art Deco dandies?
I think it's wonderful.  Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have done more than anybody to get this music in front of the public.  I look at the fans of my show on Facebook -- almost 1400 people, and the grey heads, like me, are in the minority.
If you had to define this unique sound in just a few words, what would you say?
I don't know.  Classic Pop & Jazz, Hot Dance Music.  I'm even okay with "cartoon music" nowadays.
Who are some of your favorite artists?  Favorite songs?
I was always a Bing Crosby fan.  I dig the Dorsey Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cliff Edwards, Al Bowlly, Connie Boswell.  I like a solid dance band, like Bert Lown.  And the British bands are great.  No real specific song favorites, but like the music or Harold Arlen and Walter DonaldsonRay Noble's "Love Locked Out" is lovely.
I understand you were involved in someway with the creation of the Nighthawks….
In the early days of the show, I tried forming a Big Broadcast Band, but it didn't go anywhere until Vince got involved.  He ran with it, to say the least!  Now, he supplies the music for Boardwalk Empire!
What do you think this music has to say to us today?
It's very direct and literate.  We could all benefit from its polish and enthusiasm.

Many thanks, Rich Conaty!

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Gérôme Week Part V – Michelangelo

Welcome to the fifth and final installment of our weeklong overview of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904).  Today we look at one of Gérôme’s most intimate and affecting pictures, Michelangelo, painted in 1849.
When discussing Michelangelo, it is important to remember that Gérôme was not just a great painter, but a gifted sculptor as well.  He made his public debut as a sculptor at the Paris International Exhibition of 1878, with a bronze group of figures called The Gladiators, which were inspired by his own painting Pollice Verso from 1872.  Gérôme had been making plaster models to use as an aid in painting for many years, and his abiding interest in artistic anatomy led naturally to modeling and sculpting.  He sculpted Omphale, a life-size depiction of the Lydian queen watching the labors of Hercules, in marble.  Other figures include Tanagra (1890) and Cupid and the Infant Bacchus.  (The French government wanted to buy Omphale, but he declined, finding the offer of purchase satisfying enough.)
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475 – 1564), of course, was the great Renaissance painter, sculptor, architect, poet and engineer.  Though gifted in many of the arts, Michelangelo primarily thought of himself as a sculptor, and thought the art of painting, in some way, precious and effete.  His muscular figures, carved on monumental scale, reflect his vision of the inherent divinity of man and his key place in the heavens as the servant of God.
Michelangelo was the subject of many paintings by 19th Century artists.  Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (1797-1890) painted a series of pictures about Michelangelo in the 1840s, from which Gérôme borrowed costume details.  Gérôme depicts the Renaissance master as old and blind (there is no historical evidence for later blindness, so here Gérôme takes a bit of poetic license).  An apprentice guides the old artist’s hands to one of the most famous sculptures of antiquity, the Belvedere Torso, which was an endless source of inspiration to the younger Michelangelo.
Michelangelo is, in many way, Gérôme’s most sentimental picture.  Michelangelo is old and frail, stooped and unable to see one of the great works that he loved so in his youth.  The boy, small, frail and supple, leads the older man along.  The scene is obviously Michelangelo’s studio, littered with his marbles, his hammer and his gathered drawings.
The Belvedere Torso, now on view at the Vatican, is nowhere near as sizable as that depicted in Gérôme’s painting, so again the artist takes a bit of liberty for the sake of his composition.  But look here at the composition and the close grouping of the figures.
Michelangelo and the apprentice are both contrasted in profile, one aged and bearded, the other hairless and young.  The old man’s body is lumpy and stooped in contrast to the boy who is lissome and gently curved.  The lines of the boy’s pants point upward at his own profile and Michelangelo’s, while also drawing attention to the curve of his bottom.
The torso, on the other hand, is everything Michelangelo and the boy are not.  It is monumental, vigorous, muscular, heroic and larger-than-life.  The disparity between the three figures is also the point of sympathy; it is impossible to look at the painting and not fall into reverie.
What, I wonder, was Gérôme thinking, exactly?  Is he making some comment on loss of the senses as we age … or thinking about the sense of touch, specifically?  Was he contrasting youth and age?  Or was it something else?  I prefer to think that Gérôme, one of the great masters of his age, was also making a comment on the spiritual, on the idealizing quality of art.  Both Michelangelo and the boy reach out to touch an idealized torso, and vision of the divine, a view of humanity’s spiritual perfection made flesh (or stone).  What Gérôme wanted to say, I believe, is that when we touch art, it touches us, and brings meaning and transcendence into our lives.
For years this picture hung at the Dahesh Museum in New York, a haven for serious art connoisseurs and students which has, sadly, closed its doors for now.  The museum frequently has travelling exhibitions (most recently in Dubai) and if Michelangelo comes near you in one of these shows, I strongly urge you to see it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Gérôme Week Part IV – Duel After the Masquerade

Welcome to the fourth installment of our weeklong overview of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), one of the most celebrated masters of his time, and now little more than a footnote to the general public in the wake of Modernism.  (Ah, but how he is cherished by connoisseurs and the many artists working to restore the skills and ideals of the classical world, the Italian Renaissance and the Beaux-Arts tradition!)
Duel After the Masquerade, painted in 1857, is one of the most remarkable and haunting pictures in Gérôme’s oeuvre.  The picture depicts the aftermath of a duel after a costume ball – a foggy morning in the Bois de Boulogne, Paris.  Pierrot is dying in the arms of the Duc de Guise; a man in the costume of a Venetian doge examines the wound while Domino behind them is overcome with emotion and remorse.  To the right, the victor, in the costume of an American Indian, leaves alongside Harlequin.
What is it about Duel After the Masquerade that is so suggestive, so disquieting, so evocative?  Is it the fact that we are looking at the last moments of Pierrot’s life?  Surely not, as we have seen hundreds of pictures featuring men dying.  Is it the look of concern and consternation of his fellows?  Or is it simply the fact that a man in clown’s makeup is always both more-and-less than human…?
The point of the duel can be deduced by Gérôme’s clever use of costume.  Pierrot is a pantomime character; a sad clown in love with Columbine, who usually leaves him for Harlequin.  Pierrot is the quintessential loser – he is too naive for his own good, is the butt of pranks, and invariably trusts the wrong person.  Harlequin, who is leading the winning duelist away, on the other hand, is a servant of the devil, helping chase the souls of the damned to hell.   Clearly, these two men have not tried to kill each other over a point of honor, but over a woman and, in Gérôme’s picture, evil has triumphed.
And perhaps it is that – the clear triumph of evil – that is so haunting in this picture.  The doomed Pierrot is clearly not a villain, and probably not the aggressor, either.  Those supporting his body during his final moments are too horrified, too gentle, too dismayed for the dying man to have been an agent of evil.  Indeed, Harlequin leads the Indian away (as he leads away damned souls) with their backs to us, as if we are unworthy of their regard.
What is remarkable about Duel After the Masquerade is how different it is from the rest of Gérôme’s body of work.  We have seen his mastery of ornate detail (from pillars and scrollwork, to tapestries and marble), but aside from some detail on the doge’s costume, there is none of that here.  We have also looked at his remarkably lush use of color – but the color scheme of Duel is extremely muted.  Much of the picture is white (or  off-white), a non-color, the color of death.  (Black, on the other hand, is all colors; white is the color of the void.)  Gérôme marvelously obscures the trees and two carriages in the background; this is not some impressionist technique, but, rather, a superb evocation of fog, slowly burning off with the dawn.  It is a brilliant use of a wintery palette, and quite unlike his other work.
Gérôme poses his players in a dramatic fashion.  The characters to the left are larger, more delineated, and Pierrot is outlined by the colors of the men around him.  Indeed, the red of the doge’s robe and angle of his elbow seem to point directly at the dying man’s wound – a dramatic drop of blood on the white costume.  His face is covered in white makeup, but his arm now also has the white bloodless quality of death.
These figures are anchored to those on the right by the cloak in the snow that bridges them together.  The figures walking away seem to merge into the fog and nothingness – they deliver the necessary information for the narrative, but never keep us from the great drama of the dying man on the left.
A magnificent painting – and an atypical piece from a great master.  We will further explore Gérôme’s versatility tomorrow with a look at his painting of Michelangelo.
More Gérôme tomorrow!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Gérôme Week Part III – Éminence Grise

From the extremely graphic Pollice Verso, we now move to the extremely subtle with Gérôme’s 1873 picture Éminence Grise.
Éminence Grise (French for grey eminence) is one of Gérôme’s most quiet compositions, and one that perfectly captures the man’s innate sense of Romanticism.  The phrase originally referred to François Leclerc du Tremblay (1577 – 1638), also known as Père Joseph, a French Capuchin friar who was a confident and agent of Cardinal Richelieu.  “Grey eminence” over time came to mean a powerful advisor who operates secretly or unofficially – an often malefic power behind the throne.  (Think Karl Rove with holy orders, greater intelligence and panache.)
Père Joseph began his professional relationship with Richelieu in 1612 – and the full extent of the services he rendered to the Cardinal are still shrouded in mystery.  In 1627, Père Joseph was involved in the siege of La Rochelle; he also colluded with Richelieu to defeat the Habsburgs prior to unifying Europe in the hopes of resurrecting the Crusades.  As agent to the Cardinal, Père Joseph was involved in the 1630 Diet of Regensburg to block the emperor’s plans, and then advocated the intervention of Gustavus Adolphus.  Throughout all of these intrigues (and many of them form the backdrop of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers),   Père Joseph maintained a monkish austerity and simplicity.  Like many of the truly powerful, he sought to hide behind a mask of simplicity.
Gérôme’s Éminence Grise depicts Père Joseph descending the grand staircase of the Palais Cardinal.  Let us look at Gérôme’s composition for a moment.  The figures on the upper and lower stairs all form a perfect arrow, pointing at Père Joseph.  Add to that, all of the figures in the picture are looking at the friar, so the focal point is unmistakable.
To maintain a fluid motion for the eye, Gérôme has a streak of sunlight (note that none of the lamps are lit, so this must be light from an unseen window) on the lower right hand of the canvas, snaking up a few steps, casting little daubs of light against the wall, and then ending with another figure looking at the friar from behind a banister.  These little things, so often unregistered by the mind but enticing to the eye, are the components that drive the ‘motion’ of a picture – and Gérôme’s mastery of composition is one of the most fecund facets of his genius.
Look, too, at how Gérôme directs his players.  The friar, in sandals and rough-hewn robe, is oblivious to the obsequious bows of the courtiers around him.  Père Joseph gazes into his devotional book, but are his thoughts on religion, or public policy?  He stands before another of Gérôme’s wonderfully realized tapestries, here a symbol of power and monarchy.
The people on the stairs are a wonderfully diverse bunch: musketeers, courtiers, churchmen (how wonderfully the red robe of the cleric catches the light, with an almost tactile satiny finish), and palace guards.  Their bodies are bowed but their heads are slightly elevated – both looking at Père Joseph and hoping to be noticed.
Of course, the railing of the staircase, the lamps, the ornate costuming and the marble pillars are delineated with Gérôme’s customary pitch-perfect draftsmanship and ornate attention to detail.
Looking at Gérôme’s artistry, it is perhaps best here to also discuss his reputation as a teacher.  Gérôme taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris for 40 years, and he was also co-creator (with Charles Bargue) of celebrated Drawing Course  (“Cours de Dessin”) first published in Paris in the 1860s and 1870s.  These 200 lithographs were copied by art students around the world before attempting to draw from a live model.  The course was divided into three sections, each more difficult.  The Drawing Course had been unavailable for decades until it was reconstructed by historian Gerald M. Ackerman and artist Graydon Parrish in a heroic act of reconstruction.  Anyone interested in serious arts training should obtain a copy.  (See the cover below.)
A list of Gérôme’s successful students would be quite a long one, but a partial list includes: Frank Boggs, Frederick Arthur Bridgman, George Bridgman,Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, Alexander Harrison, William McGregor Paxton and Abbott Handerson Thayer.
More Gérôme tomorrow!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gérôme Week Part II – Pollice Verso

Welcome back to our week-long overview of Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), one of the great Artist Adventurers of the Victorian era.  Today we are looking at a picture as dramatically different from the spiritual calm of Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard as is humanly imaginable, the masterful Pollice Verso, painted in 1872.
“Pollice Verso” is an ambiguous Latin phrase meaning “with a turned thumb” (not necessarily “thumbs down”).  It was common during gladiatorial battles for the audience (or emperor) to express satisfaction by motioning with thumbs up or thumbs down – however, it is unknown if thumbs up meant mercy or execution.  So, this begs the question in Gérôme’s canvas: are the spectators arguing for death, or clemency?  Though it is unclear in the narrative of the painting, the faces of the spectators leave little doubt that additional blood will be shed.
Gérôme was a master at depicting enclosed space – and though the impression of Pollice Verso is of an open immensity, it, too, is an enclosed space.  The arena wall surrounding the combatants effectively closes off the picture (and any hope of escape), and the far distance in the upper left of the canvas is blocked by a mass of people.  To further emphasize that this is not open space, look at what Gérôme does with light: there are streaks of sunlight crossing the sand of the arena, and streaking up the wall and into the spectators.  If there are streaks of sunlight, there must be some obstruction overhead, casting the majority of the action in shadow.  What that obstruction is remains unknown – but look at what it does for Gérôme: he uses the light to create “arrows” pointing at the main action, and up at the people commenting on it.  Gérôme’s genius for composition is one of the many things that make him such a remarkable painter – so let’s look at some of the things he puts within his framework.
The gladiator stands above his vanquished foes, forming a tight triangle of action.  (Note how a streak of sunlight rides up his arm and helmet.)  The fallen trident underscores the triangular shape that would’ve been somewhat mitigated by the outstretched arm of the victim.  With a few deft strokes, Gérôme manages to mix blood and sand … painting a red mud that is wonderfully visceral.
Next, look at the Emperor slightly to the left over the gladiator’s helmet.  Apparently he is above the drama occurring around him: his thumb is neither up nor down, indeed, it looks as if he is sampling some savory from the dish at his left.  The woman to the right of the gladiator’s helmet seems greatly distressed at the outcome … and who is that, leaning over her shoulder?  A friend?  Or a rival of the vanquished man?
Finally, look at the bloodthirsty Vestal Virgins, all dressed in white.  Essentially priestesses, they behave with disquieting abandon, more like harpies than women with the sacred duty of maintaining the flame at the House of Vesta in the Forum.  It is one of the ugliest depictions of womanhood in the Victorian corpus, and it is somehow more disgusting than the violence at their feet.  (Have a moment, too, for the faces of the crowd one tier above the vestal virgins: lust, disdain and violence are etched on all of them.)
Other details richly ornament the picture: Gérôme has a sure hand in creating the cool feel of the marble walls, the highly ornate pillars and tapestries, and the decorative relief under the Emperor’s box.  A lesser painter would have blocked these in and filled them with dense color; Gérôme, instead, delineates each component with extensive detail.
Though a grim picture of violence, depravity and decadence, Pollice Verso is a masterpiece, and one of Gérôme’s most accomplished pictures.  It is clear to see the influence Gérôme has had on our conception of the ancient world, and his work echoes through the vision of filmmakers as diverse as D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille and Ridley Scott. 
More Gérôme tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gérôme Week Part I -- Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard

Welcome to this, the 75th post on The Jade Sphinx.
Readers interested in art – both as connoisseurs and artists themselves – could hardly do better than spending a week in the company of Jean-Léon Gérôme ( 1824–1904).  One of the most celebrated artists and teachers of his era, Gérôme still has much to teach us.  With that in mind, we will spend the next five days looking at some of what I think are Gérôme’s finest pictures, and examine the components that make them so interesting.
Gérôme was born in Vesoul; his father was a goldsmith, and his mother a merchant's daughter. Gérôme  was something of a prodigy at school, receiving prizes in chemistry, physics and oil painting.  He started his drawing lessons at age nine and his painting tutorials at 14.  At 16, he went to Paris to study with Paul Delaroche (1797-1856).
Gérôme was a very popular student – much as he would later become a much admired and beloved adult.  He was invariably friendly and often helped out fellow students with food or pocket money.  During his third year at the atelier, the school closed following a bout of depression suffered by Delarouche.  His wife, Louise (daughter of painter Horace Vernet) had died, and a fellow student had died in a duel.  Gérôme accompanied his teacher on a trip to Rome along with two other artists, helping the older man overcome his despair.
Gérôme would later call this period in Rome the happiest of his life.  He spent his time looking at great masterworks and studying antiquities.  However, he also came down with typhoid and his mother had to come from Vesoul to care for him.  Gérôme returned to Paris in 1844 and finished his studies with Charles Gleyre (1806-1874).  Gleyre also taught Monet, Renoir and Whistler, and was also an enthusiast of the Near East – an enthusiasm that would be shared by Gérôme. 
Gérôme lived during a great period that could well be called the era of the Artist Adventurer.  At a time when travel involved health risks, physical discomforts and potentially lethal hazards that we in 2011 can only imagine, Gérôme spent much of his time exploring the world.  His first trip to Turkey happened in 1855, when he went there to make studies for a large official commission.  Afterwards, he visited Egypt in 1857.  Later travels included a three-and-a-half month excursion to the Middle East with eight friends; by this time he had learned Arabic and was a seasoned traveler as well as a lively and convivial companion. Leaving from Marseilles, they disembarked at Alexandria and journeyed up the Nile to Cairo and Giza prior to taking a train to Suez and a safari to Mount Sinai via the east bank of the Dead Sea.  Gérôme and company then moved on across the peninsula of Aquaba to Petra and finally to Jerusalem.   Later, he visited Syria and Judea, as well as Turkey, Spain and Algiers, Holland, Greece, London, Sicily and Italy.
To these travels in historical perspective – most of these places were impossibly far, distant and exotic to the average 19th Century European or American.  And while I’m not suggesting that Gérôme was Indiana Jones with a paintbrush, I am saying that his travels were an act of heroism and exploration of a type that is no longer possible in our shrinking world.  Other adventures for Gérôme include fighting a duel and viewing the opening of the Suez Canal – in short, the swashbuckling Gérôme makes the squalid episodes in the lives of 21st Century “street” artists look like weak tea, indeed.
Between periods of intense work and travel, Gérôme found time to marry and have a family -- four daughters and one son, Jean (who wished to be a painter, as well, but died in his 20s).  As Gérôme  aged, he became a celebrated teacher and something of a national institution.  He was a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, and entitled to a full military funeral when he died.  His Requiem Mass was mobbed by the public, attended by the President of the Senate, the Director of Fine Arts, the former President of the Republic, the mayor of Vesoul and many painters and writers.  He is buried in the Montmartre Cemetery in front of the statue of Sorrow he had cast in memory of his son Jean.
Near the end of his life, Gérôme was a vocal critic of the Impressionists.  An intelligent and perceptive man, he saw the tides of artistic training and taste changing.  Artists were giving up on drawing, on intensive training, on historical perspective, and giving themselves over to ‘feeling’ and ‘expression’ – abandoning discipline, intellectual and compositional rigor, and a centuries-old artistic tradition.  He saw the writing on the wall, and it was the first tragic step that would lead to later, more risible absurdities like Jackson Pollack, David Hockney and Marcel Duchamp.
Like many of the artists of this period who traveled to the Orient (which, at the time, was anything east of Istanbul), and who painted what they saw there, Gérôme was called an Orientalist.  Today’s picture, Harem Women Feeding Pigeons in a Courtyard, is a wonderful evocation of this style.
The composition of the picture is remarkable, ‘reading’ across the canvas from left to right a through-line of action.  The white veiled women are each distinct individuals by the color of their robes and the poise of their individual poses.  The woman feeding the pigeons extends her hand in easy grace, Gérôme depicting the birdfeed as it gently drifts towards the ground.  Look at her robe – the color is unmistakable – the same gentle tint of blue used by artists for centuries when depicting the Virgin Mary.  I cannot with certainty say that Gérôme consciously wished to evoke the Madonna, but this figure in blue feeding the flock of pigeons has a distinct Christian feel.  Surely it is significant that the light catches some of the pigeons, bleaching them dove-white, and that angels also have wings. 
The palace guard, however, in red robe and high, white hat, is a true outsider to the scene.  Unlike the women, his face is uncovered, but his skin is dark and his robe a distinct and dramatic military red.  One of his arms is behind his back, his other occupied in front of his body – he is not in any way involved in her act of charity and nourishment, which is particularly feminine.
The birds are masterfully done, flying in-and-out of shafts of bright sunlight.  Their shadows are cast on the sun-drenched steps, and they nest in the beams overhead.  The sense of flight is complete, with elegant wings suspending them mid-air, mixed with a sense of both delicacy and movement.
The most fascinating thing Gérôme does in this picture is, perhaps, the way in which he has captured the lofty space of the courtyard.  The pillars have support beams stretching back to the wall, providing a sense of depth; the pillars on the left are partially lit by the sun, providing a sense of height and scale.  One can almost feel the cool recesses of the space, hear the coo of the birds, and, perhaps, watch where one steps.
The door behind the birdfeeder leads into darkness and the cooler recesses within, while the window to the right opens out into the sun and open air.  This enclosed space –and Gérôme was a master of the enclosed space – is fully realized and complete.
More Gérôme tomorrow!