Sunday, August 31, 2008

Buckets of Beauty

Christopher Citro was my unofficial Consigliere of Funk while we were putting together the Funk issue for Indiana Review. I could always rely on him for his sound funky judgment (excuse the pun). He graciously blessed us with the following blog post. --Misstra Knowitall


As far as I know, I have never been in a coma. Nevertheless, for some reason, I find it useful to have a plan for what to do if I ever find myself in one. Or, I should say, a plan for what the people around me should do. From time to time, I'll mention to a loved one, "If I'm ever in a coma, I want you to..." Usually it involves music that I want to be played as loudly as possible in the hospital room, on the presumption that if that wouldn't bring me back into the land of the living and breathing and shagging and eating and whining and drinking, then nothing would.

The first time that I listened to "Sir Duke" from Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, listening on headphones while walking to a place to have drinks with friends, I ended up hyperventilating. I almost got run over at a crosswalk. When I got to the cafe, I told my buddies that if I ever fell into a coma, I wanted them to play that song in my hospital room so loud that the windows would rattle and the nurses would burst into flame. They said they would, and I brought the first round of drinks in thanks.

A few weeks ago, just as the august heat and humidity here in southern Indiana cranked up to coma-inducing proportions, I dug out my Fats Waller CDs. I've been in love with his music since high school (one needs little more than the Dead Kennedys and Fats Waller to survive high school, if one puts one's mind to it--at least, that's what worked for me). I'd recently completed my collection of the superlative, now out-of-print, RCA boxed sets of Fats Waller and his Rhythm--huge chunks of his real, low-down, unadulterated music from the '30s and '40s originally released on 78s--and the good woman and I had one CD in particular that we couldn't bring ourselves to take out of the car. I almost ran off the road twice listening to "Big Chief De Sota," and the good woman kept "Christopher Columbus" on repeat for a week. The stultifying heat just couldn't stand up to Fats Waller

I found a documentary about Waller at the county library and one night, while our new robot vacuumed the living room and the air-conditioner stuck its straw right under Saudi Arabia and sucked up petroleum like crazy, we watched stuff like this:

Now, I told you all that story in order to tell you this...

While tracing the evolution of Fats Waller's stride style of piano playing, the documentary introduced Art Tatum. I’d heard his name many times, but I never heard his music. In case you're the same way, allow me to rectify (whether or not any of you ever find yourselves in a coma).

Being by no means a jazz historian, I'll keep this brief. Art Tatum (1909-1956) was an amazing virtuoso jazz pianist in the stride tradition of Fats Waller. Once when he entered a club where Waller was playing, Fats stepped away from the piano to let him sit while saying "I only play the piano, but tonight god is in the house." I found the exact clip which was in the documentary and which made me spill wine all over the robot as I reached to hit rewind on the DVD remote. It's sick how great this is. He's playing "Yesterdays."

Tatum was half blind, self-taught, and is regarded by tons of people as the greatest jazz pianist, the greatest jazz soloist of any kind, who ever lived. This is what he did to Dvorak.

Apparently when he was but a child, he'd teach himself to play tunes he heard on the radio, even going to far as to learn to play, by myself, compositions that were actually written to be performed by two pianists. He regularly made people think that his recordings were performed by multiple pianists. This guy was insanely good. His playing in the 30s and early 40s presaged bebop. You can hear it in his version of Yesterdays above.

Charlie Parker once said "I wish I could play like Tatum's right hand."

Dave Brubeck: "I don't think there's any more chance of another Tatum turning up than another Mozart."

Dizzy Gillespie: "First you speak of Art Tatum, then take a long deep breath, and you speak of the other pianists."

And the beautiful Ray Charles: "Even later, when I got fairly good at the piano, I knew that I couldn’t even carry Art Tatum’s shit bucket."

For those of you who've never heard of him, welcome to Art Tatum.

-Chris Citro

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tim Seibles: Ten Queries of Funk (Pt.2)

Here's part two of the interview with one of my favorite poets, Tim Seibles, author of Buffalo Solos, Hurdy Gurdy, Body Moves, and Kerosene. He was most recently featured in Indiana Review's Funk feature.

6. Funkier: Kevin Garnett or Bill Russell?

Garnett, no doubt; you can see the funk in his walk and in his jumper. He's a totally EMBODIED brother.

7. What's your favorite funk cut/album?

My favorite funk album: George Clinton's TAPOAFOM (The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mothership), which came out around '94 and got NO play
whatsoever. I can't understand it...

8. Funkier: Blade or Blackula?

I gotta go with brother Blade. He's the avenging angel of all the funky ancestors...

9. What are you working on now?

I finishing up a collection of poems that features Blade, Frederick Douglass, and almost funky, John Brown as personas.

10. And finally, Funkier: Shirley Chisholm or Barack Obama?

Oh, I gotta go with my boy, Barack. Did you see him hit that jumper when
he met with those troops in that gym? He stepped back with a bop-step just like the brothers on the schoolyard playgrounds.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Tim Seibles: Ten Queries of Funk (pt.1)

Tim Seibles is one of my favorite poets because he's cool and generous and funny and clever and thoughtful and funky and silly and serious and subversive. And did I mention that the brother is cool?

One of my favorite poems of all time is Tim's "Natasha in a Mellow Mood," from his book, Hurdy Gurdy, where the poet takes on the voice of Natasha Fatale. Yeah, like Boris and Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon. And what I really like about that poem is that it's hilarious, but still sexy (just like Natasha herself):
"...Oh, Boris, Boris
Badenov, I want your mischief-
riddled eyes to invent
my whole body, all the silken
slopes of fresh forgotten
by the blind cartoonist. I want
to be scribbled all over you
in shapes no pencil would dare. Dahlink,
why don't we take off
that funny little hat..."
Tim pulls this off because he's cool like that. He's also incredibly funky, so when we were putting together the Funk feature for Indiana Review, he was one of the first people that came to mind and we were blessed to have his work featured in the issue. As a matter of fact, his funk was so powerful that one of our visual artists, Noel Anderson, cited him as a influence on his stunning Blacktoun Citizen series that was also in the issue. I caught up with Tim recently and we rapped a bit about his take on various things funky.
1. How has Funk influenced your approach to your own work?

Inasmuch as Funk is feeling that operates at the skeletal, maybe even the
molecular level in our bodies, I think I am influenced by Funk in ways that I don't even understand. It's beyond the music-- definitely: It's a style of wakefulness, a way of being in your flesh that's both celebratory, reverent, and aware of the body's limitations-- the ultimate limitation being mortality...

2. Funkier: Bullwinkle or Rocky?

Definitely Bullwinkle. Rocky was way too stiff and goodie-goodie.

3. What writers do you think of when it comes to Funk?

I could write an essay on this question, but I'll simply say Zora Neale Hurston, Pablo Neruda, Margaret Walker, WS Merwin (especially in The Lice), James Baldwin (his short fiction especially), Tracy K. Smith, Tyehimba Jess, William Henry Lewis (his short fiction I Got Some People in Stanton). There are many more, but that's a taste.

4. Funkier: Tweety Bird or the Road Runner?

Road Runner, hands down. (Can you imagine Tweety in your funk?)

5. Your poem in the Funk feature is dedicated to Papa John Creach, can you speak a little bit about who he was and how he relates to Funk?

Papa John Creach was a blues violinist, a funky old brother. I mean, for me, the roots of Funk is in the Blues, which has roots that go all the way back to African drums and the field hollars of American slaves. Funk is a way of feeling your body alive, a groove that speaks the body's language. To be real, it's the language of the black body. It was a way for Black folks to keep their 'Africa' alive in a way that wouldn't scare whites folks too much. However, it can contain and speak through all human bodies.
There IS such a thing as a funky White person-- especially in this country-- because of the steady contact between Blacks and Whites. The Funk vibe "not only moves, it can RE-move, dig?"
Stay tuned for part two of this interview...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Immaculate Funk

"My rubric was Immaculate Funk,"
--Jerry Wexler, describing the sound of R&B at Atlantic Records.

It seems like I've been writing a lot of obituary posts lately, but I would be greatly remiss if I didn't acknowledge the passing of Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler. If you don't know, than you should know that this is the man who rescued Aretha Franklin from Columbia records, put her more in control of the sound her music, and helped bless us with some of the most stunning recordings in music history. He worked with everybody: Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Otis Redding, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Booker T. & the MGs, Sam & Dave, Sam & Dave, and a whole bunch of others. Oh, and by the way, not only did he help redefine R&B as a genre, he actually coined the term "rhythm and blues" while working as a reporter for Billboard magazine. That's what you call juice.

Thank you, Mr. Wexler.

Rolling Stone also has a nice piece on Wexler that's worth checking out.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Smokey and U

Something about this is kind of disturbing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chris Abani drops knowledge

A while back I stumbled on amazing website put together by the TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conference that takes place every year in Long Beach, California. Basically, the conference is all about bringing together thinkers from the major disciplines and have them explain an idea or concept their working on. The conference features people like Stephen Hawking, Anna Deveare Smith, Jane Goodall, Bill Clinton, Dave Eggers, Amy Tan, and a bunch of lesser-known (but no less significant) folks. Whatever you're into, whether it be technology, science, art, design, sociology, they've got something for you.

To get you started, Nigerian writer Chris Abani talks about the importance of learning African narratives. Abani recently wrote a novel, The Virgin of Flames, which was reviewed in Indiana Review by Megan Savage. If you haven't heard of him, you need to. Dude is deep.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Walk on By

This has been a tough weekend. First the Mac Man and now Black Moses. What is going on, y'all?

What makes it even more strange is the fact that they were making a movie together. Creepy.

Speaking of Isaac Hayes, Hot Buttered Soul is my father's favorite album. One of my fondest memories is when I was around ten or eleven and me and Pops drove from California to Minnesota to visit my uncle's family. Although he drove a Honda station wagon in his civillian life, Pops insisted on renting a Cadillac Deville ("It's called a hog, son") for our trip and spent hours creating these elaborate funk mix tapes for us to ride to. Hayes' Walk on By was a staple and I remember being awed not only by the song's lush orchestration, but also it's intimate and painful portrait of a man at his most vulnerable. We gone miss you, Mr. Hayes.

...Oh yeah, I almost forgot: Isaac Hayes was also funny as hell (long before he was Chef on South Park) and played a central role in one of the funniest comedies ever, I'm Gonna Get You Sucka. Check this scene with Jim Brown and a young Chris Rock.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Cake and Potatoes

Y'all need to check out my man Jackson Brown's new web comic Cake and Potatoes. The art work is great and the concept is hilarious. Jackson was my roommate in graduate school and dude is sick (in a good way). It says he's going to be updating the blog every week or so, so definitely check him out.

And speaking of comics, have y'all peeped the new Howard Zinn, A People's History of American Empire?

I cannot express to you the true funkiness of this comic. It takes you on an incredible visual tour of just how much shadiness has gone into maintaining our American dream. Thankfully, the book effectively balances its explanations of how corporations and politicians have screwed people over throughout history with real stories of Americans who stood up to these powers. In fact, some of the most engaging parts of the book are the sections where Zinn's personal story crosses with the larger narrative of social justice throughout the book. I'm teaching humanities this fall and I'm definitely using this in class.

Oh, here's a video preview of the book featuring Aragorn--I mean, Viggo Mortensen

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Funky Y 2 C

Don't front. You know this was your jam back in the day.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Chipotle's Secret Ingredient

Misstra Knowitall enjoy Chipotle as much as the next man, but occasionally he sees things and it gives him pause. Misstra Knowitall enjoys the steak burrito with the mild and corn salsa and cheese and sour cream and occasionally lettuce and guacamole. He has a special place in his heart for that particular meal.
However, he sees things and he wonders. For instance, Misstra Knowitall has been in Chipotles all across the land. From the Midwest, to the East coast, the West coast, and every where in between. Like all voracious consumers of culture, Misstra Knowitall thinks he's an expert on the product he consumes. And his expertise has led him to the following conclusion. The restaurant has been successful because it took a simple, well-thought business model and put it into practice. And although Chipotle touts its ingredients, its most important is its least recognized:


Stay with me now. Have you ever noticed that you could be in a Chipotle in any place in the world and you're going to see the same thing: the bulletproof sneeze guard, fake-ass Aztec designs, and at least three Mexicans working behind the counter. You could be in Pennsylvania or California or Baltimore or Indiana or Minneapolis or Chicago and it was all the same: One guy is chopping up beef, another's pouring a vat of guacamole, and there's a woman up front, taking orders. And for every three Mexicans you see, there has to be at least one clean-cut manager (a White man, for those that might have gotten it twisted).

It's like every store has a quota.

Do you have to prove you can hire a certain number of brown-skinned people before you can open a Chipotle? Do those brown-skinned people get the same kinds of opportunities for management training as everyone else?

(Also, why is it that I hardly ever see any Black folks being hired at Chipotle?)

I just think it seems kind of unfair that I hardly ever see Latinos in those upper positions within the restaurant. Without that kind of opportunity, the setup smacks of neo-burrito-colonialism.

I just wonder what kind of business model they're working with and what type of experience they are trying to sell the people that enter their store. Sounds like the work of Sir NoseD'Void Offunk, if you ask me.

**Update: It looks like Chipotle may not be treating it's farm workers right either. On a personal note, I hope they get this straightened out because I would hate to have to give up my beloved steak burrito.

Monday, August 4, 2008

I'm free

Although Misstra Knowitall was almost eaten alive by Teach for America's teacher training, I remain unbowed (although I did lose one very funky iPod--a story for another day.) Needless to say, even though I was helping to close the achievement gap at David Starr Jordan high school, I always kept one eye on the funk. In honor of my return, peep the Muppets performing a classic rendition of The Commodores, Brickhouse. Truly one of the great moments in funk history.