From the Desk Of: Eugene Marlow
“Swinger” Stride Pianist Judy Carmichael’s Memoir

Swingers: A Jazz Girl's Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem by Judy CarmichaelMarlowsphere Blog (#142)

When you get to the end of stride pianist Judy Carmichael’s memoir Swinger—A Jazz Girl’s Adventures from Hollywood to Harlem (C&D Productions, Sag Harbor, NY 2017) you’re sorry the set (of chapters) has concluded. You want to know more about this sui generis performer whose multi-decade career has taken her around the world (to China, for example).

Judy Carmichael is a stride pianist. For the uninitiated, stride piano is a style of jazz piano playing in which the right hand plays the melody while the left hand plays a single bass note or octave on the strong beat and a chord on the weak beat. The style was developed in Harlem during the 1920s, partly from ragtime piano playing. Among the several dozen great well-known stride pianists are James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Willie “The Lion” Smith. Dick Hyman, Dick Wellstood, Thelonius Monk, Jaki Byard, Marcus Roberts, and Herbie Hancock. Most of the dozens of well-known stride pianists are no longer living, a reason, perhaps, why the style has mostly fallen out of favor among jazz pianists.

Judy Carmichael in China Courtesy of the U.S. State Department 1992Among this group of stride piano virtuosos, however, there are three women, perhaps I should say only three women—Dorothy Donegan (no longer living), Stephanie Trick (very much living), and Judy Carmichael!

Carmichael’s pianistic chops are formidable. I’ve heard her perform (at Tanglewood). Her former saxophonist, Michael Hashim (who also performs in my own quintet), once remarked “Her left hand is so strong she doesn’t need a bass player!” How true. Her group consists of her, a guitarist, and a saxophonist. (As an aside, jazz piano virtuoso Oscar Peterson’s playing was so strong that one of his trios consisted of him, a bass player and a guitarist. No drums!).

Swinger provides dozens of insights into the world of being a musician—not just a jazz musician, but a jazz musician who is a woman in primarily a man’s world. Carmichael also provides a perspective on how non-musicians perceive artists who are musicians. On one of her on-the-road gigs a well-to-do audience member asked Judy why she came all this way for this gig, as if to say “This is a long way to come for your art?” Her reply was “I do it for the money because musicians also need money to live!” She makes clear that even though her well-deserved fame brings her well-paying gigs, she still hustles to get gigs. It’s a never-ending process.

Carmichael’s memoir covers a lot of professional ground, from her early development as a jazz pianist, to her multi-year sojourn at Disneyland, then a Jazz Inspired Guests who have been on Judy Carmichael's NPR showUnited States Department of State sponsored tour to China in the early 1990s, to her initiation of “Jazz Inspired” on NPR. And like all memorable autobiographies, her book is full of personal travails, from her difficult relationship with her parents and her brother, to other musicians, to friends and lovers. She also delves unequivocally and unabashedly into her bouts with cancer.

Swinger reads like Judy herself. Full of wit, self-effacement, irony, and verbal virtuosity. Sometimes her narrative is blunt, sometimes subtle, but always direct, compelling, and personal. Her memoir is aptly named. Carmichael—who happens to have been born female—is an artist who has survived several professional and personal challenges, but who has prevailed over time. Her memoir is a testament to focus and tenacity, the kind of characteristics you need to become one of the world’s best stride pianists.

© Eugene Marlow August 7, 2018

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Veterans Day and The Draft

Marlowsphere Blog (#141)

Marlow Receives AwardThere are two reasons why I am focused on Veterans Day.

The first is the Vietnam War. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from what is now known as Herbert Lehman College in the Bronx, NY in 1966. Two weeks later I received a draft letter from the United States Army. This led to one of the most important decisions of my young life. Instead of being drafted into the Army, I decided to voluntarily join the United States Air Force in June 1966. It meant four years of my life, rather than two, but I perceived I would have more control over my life in an Air Force uniform than in the Army. I was right as it turned out.

This decision leads to the second reason: The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the G.I. Bill—signed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt—a law that provided a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans (commonly referred to as G.I.s). The bill has been updated several times by the United States Congress and is still providing benefits to ex-servicemen and women.

As a direct result of this bill, FDR, and the Vietnam War I was able to complete an MBA for almost no expense, and then several years later a Ph.D. for almost no expense. That Ph.D., plus extensive experience in print and electronic media helped me land a position as a professor in the then journalism program at Baruch College, CUNY. This position further gave me the opportunity to garner two more degrees: in music composition. I have now completed 30 years of teaching courses in media and culture at Baruch College.

In effect, a man by the name of FDR, together with the GI Bill of 1944—a year after I was born—plus the advent of the Vietnam War and the attendant draft had a direct impact on my personal and professional life over several decades that I could not have imagined when I was in high school or starting an academic pursuit in 1961.

Talk about unintended consequences!

I’d like to point to another unintended consequence that is directly related to the draft. The nation’s first military draft began in 1940, when President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act. The draft continued through war and peacetime until 1973. More than 10 million men entered The Military Needs to Reflect All Strata of Societymilitary service through the Selective Service System during World War II alone.

One of the consequences of the draft and military service is that it creates a universal and immediate bond among those men and women who serve and have served in the military, regardless of branch of service. Whether in wartime or peace time, whether in combat or behind the lines, so to speak, putting on a uniform immediately creates a universal experience that can be shared with those who have also worn a uniform. This shared experience cannot be easily explained or even described to those who have never worn a uniform. And even though in today’s time the expression “Thank you for your service” is much more in vogue and prevalent than when I returned from active military service in 1970, when I hear it from someone who is too young to understand, it does not have the ring of authenticity in the saying of it.

In my opinion, the end of the active military draft in 1973 has resulted in the unintended consequence of at least two generations of Americans who do not share the universal military experience. And it is the absence of this shared experience that has contributed and does contribute to the economic and social divide in the United States.  As the most recent national election showed the United States of America is not united: it is two countries. One country on the east and west coasts, together with a smattering of states in the north Midwest, and the rest of the country, essentially the middle of the country—those sections of the country that either don’t directly experience the influx of immigrants from all over the world or are perceptually threatened by so-called illegal immigrants taking away job from those who are already here. Campaign rhetoric to the contrary, it’s been a while since this country was a manufacturing dominant country; this is primarily a service-oriented economy requiring higher levels of education and inter-personal and technical skills.

A Maturing ExperienceDuring the draft, young men from many walks of life, from different parts of the country, with varying levels of education, with a spread of ethnic backgrounds came together for basic training, further training, and living, working, and fighting together. It was a melting pot environment and surviving it, dealing with it, and profiting from the experience was an opportunity for personal and professional growth.

Further, in the 2001 book The Millionaire Mind by Dr. Thomas J. Stanley, among the many lessons presented there I was struck time and time again by how many of the multimillionaires described in the book had military experience. It came up as part of their backgrounds over and over again.

The Selective Service is actually in force today and men up to the age of 30 are required to register with it, but it is not an active draft. The question is: should it be? There are many reasons for and against. But I think there is a strong argument to be made for this country to institute some kind of national service, whether military or not. I perceive this kind of service would re-kindle the experiential homogeneity brought home by the GIs after WWII, and more recently the regional conflicts in the Middle East. Over 70 countries out of 196 countries in the world have some kind of mandatory military or national service. Perhaps we should take their lead.

© Eugene Marlow November 11, 2017

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Eugene Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble CD “A Not so Silent Night” Earns Four Stars from Downbeat Magazine

Eugene Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble’s “A Not So Silent Night” album (2016) has earned four stars in the December 2017 issue of Downbeat Magazine. It’s featured in Frank-John Hadley’s “Stellar Stocking Stuffers” article, p. 87.

 

The review is as follows:

 

Downbeat cover & review of Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble's "A Not So Silent Night" December 2017 issue

 

"A Not So Silent Night" Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble

 

“A Not So Silent Night” is the eighth album from The Heritage Ensemble featuring multi-Grammy nominated drummer Bobby Sanabria, saxophonist Michael Hashim, bassist Frank Wagner,  percussionist Matthew Gonzalez, and Leader/pianist Eugene Marlow.

 

“A Not So Silent Night” along with other Heritage Ensemble albums can be found at can be found at www.cdbaby.com/artist/eugenemarlow

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Eugene Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble’s “Obrigado Brasil!” Selected as a WBGO Premium

WBGO logoMEII Enterprises was honored to have The Heritage Ensemble’s recent album—“Obrigado Brasil!”—selected as one of two premiums in the Latin-jazz category for leading jazz radWBGO’s recent fundraising drive courtesy of DJ Awilda Rivera.

 

"Obrigado Brasil!" Eugene Marlow's Heritage Ensemble

 

 

“Obrigado Brasil!” is the seventh album from The Heritage Ensemble featuring multi-Grammy nominated drummer Bobby Sanabria, saxophonist Michael Hashim, bassist Frank Wagner, percussionist Matthew Gonzalez, and Leader/pianist Eugene Marlow.

“Obrigado Brasil!” along with other Heritage Ensemble albums can be found at www.cdbaby.com/artist/eugenemarlow.

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Book Review: Jazz Improvisation, Practical Approaches to Grading, By Antonio J. Garcia

Jazz Improvisation by Antonio J. GarciaMarlowsphere Blog (#140)

Jazz Improvisation, Practical Approaches to Grading
By Antonio J. Garcia
Meredith Music Publications 2016
A Review by Eugene Marlow, Ph.D., MBA
 
In the world of academic instruction there are many books—especially textbooks—that are quite long (and expensive) but have little to say of any substantive consequence. Then there are books that are relatively short but are packed with relevant information and do have something substantive to say. Jazz Improvisation, Practical Approaches to Grading by performer, composer/arranger, producer, clinician, educator, and author in both instrumental and vocal genres Antonio J. Garcia belongs in the latter category.

Why? Garcia tackles the subjective issue of grading a student’s improvisory technique, skill, and creativity in a way that opens the pedagogic challenge to a larger discussion; it is an issue that goes beyond the teaching of jazz improvisation.

There are numerous subjects in a student’s fundamental education about which subjectivity or creativity do not begin to enter the discussion. Such subjects could include mathematics (2+2 still equals 4), accounting, chemistry, physics, et al, in other words any subject for which there is no debate or creativity required (this is not to say that at some point the basic tenets of a subject are not open to examination or paradigm shift; it just means that there are subjects–such as geometry and calculus–that require more mastery than creativity).

On the other hand, there are subjects for which there is a requirement to master basic rules, but for which creativity and subjective application are requisite for success. Such courses might include English, journalism, and anything in the fine and performing arts, et al. In other words, in these concrete vs subjectivekinds of courses, there are rules to master, but there is also room for creativity and subjectivity.

Thus, there is the issue of grading. How do teachers grade creativity and subjectivity? In the former classes a teacher merely tests a student’s rote understanding of the material (2+2=4), but in a course that requires a mastery of rules or techniques, grading a student’s creative application of the rules or techniques is, well, subjective. Or is it? There is much useful information in Garcia’s 135-page book that answers this question.

The conundrum, as Garcia puts it in Chapter 1, is grading a student’s improvisational skills is “. . . a precise task in an idiom that frequently defies definition.” He raises some pertinent issues that apply equally to courses beyond jazz improvisation: “What are the objectives in a Jazz Improvisation course and how can they be graded?” and “Should the grading process be concrete or abstract?”

To answer these questions Garcia reached out several years to nearly 200 jazz educators from all over the world, plus jazz educators from the now defunct International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE, an association that has morphed into the Jazz Education Network or JEN). His grading model is also based on an IAJE Roundtable and his own extensive pedagogical experience. The “Self-Study on the Grading of Your Jazz Improvisation for Credit” questionnaire is included in Chapter 2.

Feedback from this questionnaire was “Two-thirds of the respondents spent more class time work-shopping the more technical elements (scales, cycles, etc.) than focusing on ways to sustain and develop a more creative solo.”

One of the other conclusions he comes to is “. . . it is the inexperienced or ineffective teacher who places emphasis almost exclusively on technical skills.” Again, this is also true of teachers in subjects that require a modicum of creativity and out of the box problem-solving.

Chapter 3 provides the “meat” of this book. It includes almost three dozen specific commentaries from leading jazz educators with respect to grading philosophy, grading policy, grading creativity, and topics emphasized. In effect, not only do you hear from Professor Garcia’s voice, you also hear the approaches of a broad spread of jazz educators with respect to grading jazz improvisation, including Darius Brubeck, Bob Sinicrope (recent JEN President), Mark French (Berklee College of Music), and Jamey Aebersold.

While the grading approaches among these jazz education luminaries vary (although there is much agreement on technical skills), in Chapter 5 Garcia himself reconciles the grading issue of “technical skills” vs. “creative skills”: “By specifying technical tools that lead to creative expression and requiring that they [students] incorporate those tools into their improvisations, I am unifying their thoughts of technique and expression, while I eagerly await their next creative discovery on that path.” At the conclusion of the chapter he adds: “By requiring students thoughtfully include the tools of creative expression that exceed simple scalar retention or the like, I believe we do the most possible toward prompting students to expand The book's philosphical hearttheir creative reach.” One could add poet Browning’s   “. . . or what’s a heaven for?”

Jazz Improvisation, Practical Approaches to Grading is not just for jazz educators who teach improvisation. The philosophical heart of this book is about bringing out the creative best in students, albeit by starting with the fundamentals. It is about approaching each student as an individual learner with varying degrees of talent and intellect compared to others. It is not just about grading, it is about how to be a more effective teacher.

© Eugene Marlow June 22, 2017

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