Celebrating the Art of Jazz with Pizazz!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on May 19, 2016 by playthell
Jazz Men ditDrummer George Gary Led his hard Swinging Quartet

At the Central Brooklyn Jazz Coalition’s Annual Feast

From the moment I walked into the beautiful Weeksville Heritage Center I thought of my good friend Jo Ann Cheatum, who recently danced and joined the honored ancestors.  I had been thinking about Jo Ann a lot lately, because I have a solo Photographic exhibition on display at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem, and I shot it with a camera given to me as a gift by Joan.

After looking at a couple of photos I shot to illustrate an article I wrote for her magazine Pure Jazz , a rare publication devoted to high quality journalism on the art of Jazz published by an Afro-American, she said “you have an eye for a good photograph, but you need a more advanced camera.”  A couple of weeks later she gave me one; it is the same camera that I shot the photos for this essay with.

 Jo Ann had also worked side by side with the founders of the Weeksville historical project that resulted in this venerable black community gaining landmark status. The Weeksville Heritage Center,  imaginatively designed with big spaces and large windows that enhances the feeling of openness, is one of the conspicuous fruits of their efforts. And finally, Jo Ann was a long time member and moving force of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Coalition and would surely have been sitting front and center when I took the podium to deliver the keynote address.  Like a welcome version of Banquo’s ghost her spirit was popping up everywhere.

Although it was the 17th annual CBJC banquet, this occasion was unique because it was free.  The leadership of the coalition made it clear that this was a benefaction to the supporters of their work, and was made possible by virtue of some very successful fundraising this past fiscal year.  In the announcement for the event there were explicit instructions to the guest that they should dress to the height of fashion…or a bit above it.  And they used a picture titled “The Bebop Dancers;” taken from my photo exhibition  “The Elegance of Afro-America, to set the standard.

The Bebop Dancers….
Photo XV- Jazz Dancers
Struttin their Stuff in Charlie Parker Park

After a meet and greet session in the large vestibule we were seated in the elegant dining room and treated to a swinging performance by the George Gary quartet. The band played straight ahead Jazz, no watered down quasi-rock or “easy listening” fusion music.  This was hard core Bop based swing – Bird and Dizzy’s thing!  It was hard to tell who was having the most fun, the musicians or the audience; it was a mutual admiration society….nothing but love.  It was one of those special occasions that musicians look forward to, an occasion where true symbiosis occurs between audience and performer – mutual thrills.

The menu was fine gourmet cuisine, artistically arranged and skillfully served on elegantly set tables.  The whole experience was designed to satiate the most epicurean taste.  A series of brief speeches that featured a formal Welcome by CBJC President Clarence Mosely and Executive Director/President of the Weeksville Heritage Center Ms. Tia Powell Harris, were offered up.  They were followed by remarks from  CBJC Treasurer Bessie Edwards, who gave an accounting of the financial health of the organization.

Ms. Edwards was followed by City Councilman Robert Cornegy. After a thoughtful speech reflecting on his love of Jazz and reminicing about old Jazz shrines in the Brooklyn he grew up in,  the Councilman shared with us how he had sucessfully cultivated a taste for Jazz music in his five kids.  And he heaped abundant praises upon the Central Brooklyn Jazz coalition and the Weeksville Heritage Center for their ongoing good works and the lavish banquet

When he was finished the Master of Ceremonies introduced me to the audience for the Keynote Address. They gave me the kind warm and enthusiastic reception that is usually reserved for cultural heroes and I was both energized and inspired when I took the podium.  My presentation consisted of two parts: Reading a wide ranging essay on the influence of Jazz, philosophically as well as musically on world culture.  I explained that Jazz as music captured the imagination of serious instrumentalists everywhere, and the values it embodies in its social organization and performance etiquette captured the imagination of intellectuals seeking a working democracy that promotes personal freedom and innovation.

Since the text is written and can be read by clicking the link at the bottom of this photo-essay I shan’t belebor it further here.  The second part of my presentation was a an extemporaneous critique of the feature film “Miles Ahead,”  a film about the great master trumpeter, band leader and Jazz innovator.  I explained that although I entered the theater wanting to love Mr. Cheedle’s film, excited that the story of this enigmatic Afro-American genius had finally made it to the movies, I was profoundly disappointed alas. For we never  As for the Banquet, all in all it was an enchanted evening and I had a ball!

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The Speakers

At banquet (2)

Playthell Spoke on the influence of Jazz on World Culture
The City Councilman

A Brooklyn Councilman Speaks

Spoke Eloquently of his long love Affair with Jazz
The Feast was permeated with beautiful People and Soulful Vibes

Seasoned Foxes III

Women of Substance: Bessie and Coalition Member

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At Banquet

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At Banquet Edit XX

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At the Banquet Edit III

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 At the Banquet Edit IV

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At the Banquet Edit VIII

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At the Banquet Edit XXI

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At the Banquet XI

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At the Banquet Edit XXIII

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At the Banquet Edit XIX

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The Band was Swinging Hard! 

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Bassist - Edit I

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the Pianist

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Rome Neal Spittin Verse

Rome Neal jumped up and Started Spittin Verse
The Band Played On….. 

Jazz Men Edit I

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And Oh How They Danced!

Rome Dancing VI

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Rome Dancing V

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Rome Dancing VII

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Rome Dancing IV

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Jazz Dancers Edit I

The Joint was Really Rockin!

Jazzmen Edit II

It was a Swingin Affair!!!

Double Click on Link to hear Miles, Trane and Cannonball

So what?

Click on Title “Jazz Around The World” for text to my speech 

Jazz Around The World!

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 17, 2016

Francofonia: A Panegyric to the Louvre

Posted in Movie Reviews on May 13, 2016 by playthell
Louvre - Hubert Robert_Projet_daménagement_de_la_Grande_Galerie_du_LouvreThe Grand Gallery

On the Ordeal of Art Museums in Times of War

Of the myriad films that will be released this year Francofonia will stand out as unique.  This is because it addresses a topic that is seldom discussed among most people and few rarely give it a thought.   What dose great museums do to protect its priceless art treasures, the cultural heritage of mankind, in times of war?  Although this film references other great museums, mainly the Hermitage in Russia, its focal point is the Louvre in Paris, which in the view of many art historians and critics houses the greatest collection of paintings in the world.  Although many New Yorkers would make that claim for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  And upon one of my visits to the Louvre I encountered an Italian woman who said “What do the French know of art…or wine?  You must come to Rome!”

Needless to say, I am not the one to settle this argument, for I have neither the expertise nor desire to do so.  However the claims of cultural nationalist aside, the Louvre is a marvelous place; a grand temple dedicated to the preservation and exhibition of the world’s greatest works of art, the best that the human imagination could conjure in painting and sculpture.  This wonderful creative film provides a penetrating look into the workings of the Louvre and the heroic effort its Director undertook to save their great works of Art.

Written and directed by the Russian master Alexander Sukorov, the film employs a unique narrative method.  Mixing film from newsreels of the period and footage they shot, much of the story is told with a voice over by an omniscient narrator who reads a script that often sounds like an epic poem.  The monologue meditates on the meaning of art to civilization and the importance of museums in establishing the cultural identity of a people.  The combination of the spoken words and images –and in this case the written word since this is a foreign language film with subtitles – provides a powerful experience.

Much of this power derives from the fact that images of great art are juxtaposed with images of real Nazi forces occupying Paris.  The film opens with an aerial view of Paris as we listen to the voice of a person anxiously trying to find their way to the Louvre.  The drama is heightened when we see that it is the voice of Adolph Hitler, riding down a Parisian boulevard in an open car like a conqueror leading his victorious troops while commenting on the design of the city as he makes his way to visit the Louvre.

Here we are reminded that Hitler was a failed artist who once harbored ambitions to become a great architect.  In fact these failed ambitions played a key role in the monster he became.  His failure to gain admission into a prestigious art school in Vienna was blamed on Jews, and his close relationship with architect Albert Speer reflects his desire to realize his architectural ambitions through the talents of this young architect who became the vehicle for the Nazi dictator’s ideas.  In fact, at the Nurnberg trials Speer denies that he ever shared Hitler’s Nazi beliefs but was simply an ambitious architect who graduated from school during a period of profound economic crisis in post-World War I Germany.

Hitler Entering Paris
Hitler Entering Paris
Following his victorious Legions
Hitler’s Painting of a German Castle

Hitler's painting of German castle

A Photograph and Hitler’s Painting of the Castle

Suffering from the financial burden imposed by the Versailles Treaty, the German economy was in chaos, which was reflected in the disastrous decline in the value of German currency and mass unemployment, which was exacerbated by a world-wide depression induced by the collapse of the stock market in America. Hence Speer argued that, like most Germans, he was looking for work wherever he could find it and Hitler offered him the opportunity to realize his grandest dreams.  After all Hitler promised a Thousand Year Reich when Germany would rule the world and Berlin would be its center, just as Rome had been in the ancient world.  And as Hitler’s personal architect he would get to design the grand edifices in the capitol city of the new German empire.

Ironically, it was this ambition of Hitler’s and the claim that the Nazi’s were the protectors and purveyors of civilization that would work to save the great landmarks of Paris such as the Opera House and especially the Louvre.  This is reflected in the fact that no bombs were dropped on Paris, and the orders given to German soldiers instructing them how to handle these cultural treasures with care.  However Hitler showed no such restraint regarding the Hermitage in Russia, which in his view housed the flawed artifacts of the inferior Slavs.

Furthermore most of the German officer corps, unlike many of the Nazis, came from the upper classes and in the early 20th century it was a mark of the well-educated man to have knowledge of French Culture.  Many of the Germans spoke fluent French – plus not that long ago the Russian intelligentsia wrote in French – and all of them professed an interest in and knowledge of great art.

However all of the top Nazi officials also feigned an interest in fine art, but one suspects that this is because they were all yes men to a murderous, temperamental, megalomaniac who was an avid art lover.  In any case, Sukorov made the most of German admiration of French culture and affection for great art by building the plot around two men, one French and one German: Jacques Jaujard and Count Franz Wolff Metternich, played by the French actor Louis-Do de Lencquesaing and Benjamin Utzerath, who is German.

Louis -Do de Lencquesaing and Benjamin Utzerath

Louvre - Francofonia_5_-_Louis_Do_De_Lencquesaing__Benjamin_Utzerath

As Jacques Jaujard and Count Metternich

The actors gave outstanding performances as former combatants in World War I – which had formally ended a mere 21 years ago – who first met in 1940 after the German invasion of Paris.  The dramatic tension in this film lies in the fact that Jaujard was Director of the Louvre and Count Metternich – an art historian in civilian life – was the German officer assigned to take over as the custodian of art  Museums in Paris.  Ironically, despite the fact that they represented different sides in the war, they were united in their desire to preserve the great art in the louvre.

Motivated by a deep seated distrust of German intentions, Jujard did not believe that attempts to appease Hitler by the French and British would restrain his aggresion in Europe.  Hence as early as 1938, as he witnessed the German occupation of Poland, Jujard began to secretly remove the art works from the Louvre in a stealth operation that employed art students, workmen, teachers, artists, et al.

Jujard wrapped and crated these treasures into 1,862 wooden cases, assembled a convoy of 203 vehicles, then shipped them off to safe havens in castles and chateaus throughout France.  Hence when Count Metternich arrived at the Louvre on August 16th 1940, and found the Louvre empty, instead of going into a state of rage Jujard wrote in his diary that Metternich almost seemed relieved.

This reflects the fact that Count Metternich, like most German aristocrats, was not a member of the Nazi Party and proved to be as determined as Jujard to keep these great art works out of the hands of Nazi leaders like Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, et al.   Thus each man was in a conflicting position regarding loyalty to their government versus their love of art and commitment to preserving it.

It was especially trying for Jaujard because the French government had capitulated to the Nazi’s and he felt no loyalty to them but continued to serve in his government position rather than run off and join  the “Free French” resistance because of his dedication to preserving the artistic heritage of the Louvre. And he found such a kindred spirit in Metternich that when the war was over and all the art treasures were retrived undamaged,  The cooperation he recieved from Metternich was of such a scale that Jujard requested that De Gaulle award the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest tribute.

There are many revelations in this film, the most disturbing of which is that Hitler’s attitude toward preserving the art works in the Louvre was far more enlightend that George Bush’s attitude regarding the preservation of the even more priceless antiquities in the Museum at Bagdhad.  A sad commentary indeed.  Sukorov employs some novel cinematic techniques in the telling of this tale, but it is a tale well told.  This is an important and thoughtful film that is well worth the price of the ticket.

Fantasy and Reality as conceived in the European Mind

Louvre paintings I

Are visualized in the paintings in the Louvre
 Ancient Greek Godesses such as Nike Goddess of Victory

Louvre - Winged Victory

Has been on display in the Louvre as “The Winged Victory” since 1884

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 12, 2016

The Bunko Artist as Presidential Pretender

Posted in The 2016 Presidential Race with tags , on May 1, 2016 by playthell

Donald Trump

Trump on the Stump

The World According to The Donald

   The other day I was on my way to the Magic Johnson Theater to check out Miles Ahead – Don Cheedle’s bio-pic on the brilliant enigmatic trumpeter and musical innovator Miles Davis – when I ran into my man Shoobie Doo.  “Yo Man whassup?” he hollered.  “You been watching that Dude Trump? Damn if he ain’t the best Bunko artist I ever seen at playing the long range con.  That boy’s better than ‘Christ Man’ and he convinced people he was Jesus Christ done come back from da grave!”   Well as the saying goes “game recognizes game” so I’m taking Shoobie’s word for it, because back in the day Shoobie had been a quite successful con man.

Whatever one make think of Senator Marco Rubio, and in the case of this writer not much, he was certainly right in his assessment of Trump as a “con man.”  This characterization was never clearer than in the presentation of his speech on Foreign policy, a subject Trump knows as much about as a Chimp knows about playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. After watching his presentation I wrote my initial response in a Facebook post:

“It is incoherent mumbo jumbo, pompous drivel written by right wing paranoids with a strong smattering of Trump’s own confused ideas about the world. It is extreme “AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALIST” prattle

Watching Trump’s demeanor while delivering the speech he reminded me of a man who has to go to the bathroom but is forced to hold his water.  He looked very uptight and uncomfortable as he read his remarks from two teleprompters, which had been installed on both sides of the podium so that he could see the script when looking in either direction.  “He is reading off a teleprompter and sounds mechanical,” I wrote,  “rehearsed and phony, but it at least kept him for plunging over a cliff.”  His advisors, invisible men tho they are, were not about to let Trump go public with his foreign policy views without a script.

Unfortunately for Trump, despite his success as a television show host, he is not Ronald Reagan – although he seizes every opportunity to identify with him.  Hence, unlike Reagan, a trained actor who could read seamlessly from a teleprompter and was convincing notwithstanding the fact that, like Trump, he was also clueless about the complexities of foreign policy.

Hence whereas Reagan looked like he knew what he was talking about on the podium and was comfortable doing it, Trump was stiff as a stuffed squirrel and spouted the words of his speechwriter like a ventriloquist’s dummy.  He looked like “Chucky” the blond killer dummy from the hit movie “Magic”.  And he sounded like he would be just as dangerous in the Oval Office.

Chucky!

Chucky-the-Killer-Doll-

Donnie!

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at his South Carolina campaign kickoff rally in Bluffton, S.C., Tuesday, July 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Two Dangerous Dummys!

Beyond the bluster and histrionics which Trump mistakenly thinks gives him and air of authority, it is obvious to the informed observer that he is about as deep as a dry creek bed during a drought.  It is impossible to disguise the fact that Trump is a light-weight bunko artist who is abysmally ignorant of history and politics.  This is no secret to anyone who has read the transcripts of Trump’s interrogation by the Editorial Board of the august Washington Post, or seen the video on You Tube where two sharp journalists dissect his answers to questions the editors put to him.

It is impossible to conclude after hearing this that Donald Trump is even minimally qualified to be President of the United States.  For it is all too obvious that he knows next to nothing about the problems a US president must address.  After listening to the speech I wondered if it was actually as bad as I thought; or was I somewhat biased by the fact that I was convinced before hand that Trump is a megalomaniacal ass who is embarrasingly ignorant of political science.

I was reassured of my objectivity when I heard his fellow Republican, Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, conclude: “It makes no sense!”  And my conviction was strenghtend when Senator Graham’s conclusion was co-signed by  Professor Tom Nichols of the  Naval War College, one of the nations’ most eliete national security institutions.

“I found nothing…just a speech that was intellectual chaos.” Says Nichols, a professor of International Relations.  “I believe that he has gotten further down the road than he or his advisors expected, and they decided that he had to give     I seriously doubt that Trump can find any of those countries on a map…or even care about them.  The speech sounded like they just cut up articles from conservative journals and newspapers, threw them in a hat and shook them up, then pasted them together in a speech.  I don’t believe that Trump even understood half the things he was talking about!”

Sounds to me like the textbook definition of a Con Man, a half-assed bunko artist trying to play the long range con but is not quite slick enough to keep the wise guys from peepin his hole card.   If it walks like a weasel……

Double Click on link to view Trumps Speech

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 1, 2016
 

An Unexpurgated Letter to Nick Lento and other “Progressives”

Posted in On the 2016 Presidential Election with tags , , , on April 24, 2016 by playthell
Gorgeous George in the Magic City 001
The Voice of Reason

Suicide is Not Progressive!

Dear Nicky

Since you are an obviously a smart and well-meaning guy whose heart and mind is in the right place, I shan’t follow my first impulse and tell you to KISS MY ASS!   Instead I shall endure your rather snide and snarky attitude – which has become the rhetorical style of those acolytes “feelin the Bern” – because there is value in what you say….although at times you come perilously close to being like the proverbial cow that gives a great bucket of milk then kicks it over in the dung.

For instance, after some generally astute and thoughtful analysis you opine: “Generally speaking cursing and insulting people and trying to bully them with foul language is not a way to make friends and influence people. The reality is the further we can push the Democratic platform in a progressive Direction and the further we can push Hillary Clinton in a progressive Direction the more chance she will have of winning if she becomes the nominee in the general election. Crudely and rudely demanding Bernie Sanders and the many millions of people supporting him simply walk away and politically drop dead is not helpful.”

First of all I have not suggested that Bernie Sanders supporters should “drop dead.” I am merely calling for them to cease the character  assignation of Hillary Clinton because the way it looks she will be the democratic candidate for president of the United States. In which case, we are going to have to support her in the fight against the dreaded Republicans.   Secondly,  I have been making friends and influencing people here and abroad probably before you started coming out of the yard by yourself; hence I need no advice from you on that score.

Furthermore I have been an organizer in a mass movement that succeeded, taught seminars on the structure and dynamics of mass movements in GREAT UNIVERSITIES, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize TWICE for writing about mass movements – see the nominating letters at Playthell: A Thumbnail Sketch at the top of this page.   I have won other prizes for my writings on the subject that can also be seen there, and had two of my feature essays on mass movements studied in seminars AT THE COLUMBIA GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM!  Furthermore, if you read my essays on The mass movements of the “Arab Spring” and the “Occupy Wall Street Movement” on this site you will see that they read like Biblical Prophecy!  And I have also held professorships in History and Journalism.

Hence I need NO ADVICE from verbose amateurs who are a bit too full of themselves – either regarding the use of language or how to influence people in debate.  I am a seasoned master at both!  I said EXACTLY WHAT I MEANT TO SAY IN THE STYLE THAT I SAID IT!!!!!!  I disagree that the only people who are in danger of not supporting Hillary are people who would not have voted for her in the first place.   Hence I am trying to warn the undecided that some of Bernie’s followers are going off the beam and are DANGEROUS!!!!

Although it is true that the people you identify might not have voted for Hillary, there are many independents and fence straddlers that may be inclined to vote for Hillary but will be discouraged by the increasingly rancorous and reckless rhetoric emanating from the Sanders campaign. As Bernie’s numbers shrink beside Hillary’s they are beginning to talk like mindless self-righteous zealots!   In politics as in sports: You are what the numbers say you are.  And the numbers say that when it’s all over Bernie will be an also ran.

There are 2, 383 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination.  At present according to Bloomberg News and the Associated Press Hillary Clinton has 1, 930 delegates, 502 of which are Superdelegates.  Bernie Sanders has 1,191 delegates including 38 Superdelegates and 1, 644 delegates remain to be allocated.  Clinton needs only 430 delegates to win outright, but Bernie needs 1,192 delegates to win.  I see NO path to victory for Bernie under the rules of the Democratic Party.  That’s why his supporters are going bonkers and spouting madness.  They are becoming loose cannons that represent more of an electoral danger to the Democrats than the Republicans.

Alas, otherwise sensible and principled people are beginning to sound like shameless charlatans and fumbling fools. Former head of the venerable NAACP Ben Jealous, a brilliant and thoughtful commentator/activists for the progressive vision, is talking like a charlatan in his unfair criticism of Hillary as a result of a joke told by New York Mayor de Blasio about “CP Time” i.e. “Colored People’s Time.”  It was an old joke among black Americans; I and everybody I know thought it was funny as hell.   And since Big Bill is married to a Soul Sista of the deepest dye most of us consider him “black by emersion!”

Bill and Charlene de Blasio
The Mayor and Charlene
The Mayor and First Lady of New York

So Ben made an asshole of himself with his fake outrage: IT WAS EMBARRASING!!!!  And then there is the matter of Nina Turner.  A former State Senator from Ohio, I first became aware of her from watching her emerge as a powerful spokesperson for progressive issues on television when she was in the Ohio legislature.  She impressed me as smart, feisty, politically astute, and fearless: a powerful advocate for the public interests, the working class and the powerless.

I found her admirable in every respect, a model public servant.  But here lately, as a surrogate for the Sander’s campaign, she has become shrill as a banshee, self-righteous as an evangelical preacher, and as judgmental as a hangman.  Then there are the actors who, by virtue of their fame have a large audience, however because they are used to reciting lines composed by others when left to think on their own they are subject to say ANTHING!

Susan Serandon and Dannie Glover are poignant cases in point.  In separate interviews on MSNBC Serandon hesitated when asked if she would support Hillary if Bernie didn’t get the nomination.  After fumbling around with the question, she said she was undecided and even saw a bright side to a Trump victory: “It would speed up the revolution.”

This is the kind of talk one expects to hear from clueless college kids enamored with the abstract revolutionary theories of the intellectual left promulgated by folks who claim to speak for the “revolutionary” proletariat.  Not surrogates for a politician vying for the nomination of a major American political party.  And although Danny Glover is a lot smarter than Suzy, a genuine intellectual with a deep understanding of the complexities of politics, he is also talking like a fool hedging on the question of supporting Hillary.

This is what self-righteous zealotry does to people.  The belief that one has some ultimate and unassailable truth, and that this truth is personified by a political leader that can do no wrong, has lead to unspeakable disasters.  The historical record is littered with such examples.  Alas, in their desperation Bernie’s acolytes increasingly seem convinced that by sliming Hillary they can improve his chances of victory.

They are even talking about trying to provoke a floor fight at the convention that mirror the Republican’s strategy to stop Trump.  Their strategy is based on the belief that they can provoke a fight at the Convention and convince enough super delegates to abandon Hillary and support Bernie.  However as I write Hillary needs only 430 delegates to win while Bernie needs 1, 192, hence they have a serious uphill fight ahead that will sow discord in the party in what’s seems destined to be a failing effort.

I think this is a wrongheaded strategy, a fool’s errand, that can seriously wound the party; imperiling our chancer at winning this critical election, especially since some of these zealots are talkng about starting a Third Party!  While I am an enthusiastic supporter who is feelin the Bern, I am first and foremost a political animal whose paramount objective is defeating the Republicans; a Yellow Dog Democrat who would vote for an old yellow dog before casting a ballot for a Republican.

Unlike a great many of Bernie’s acolytes – and you appear to be among their number – I do not see this as a contest between a saint and sinner they way yhall do. I see this as a contest between two ambitious politicians vying for the most powerful office in the world; neither of whom have a monopoly on virtue.

After all, most of the things that Bernie accuses Hillary of regarding raising money have been true OF EVERY SUCCESSFUL AMERICAN PRESIDENT!!!!!   Bernie is the sole exception….but then he ain’t won shit yet!   So you jokers need to CALM THA FUCK DOWN!  If Bernie don’t win he ain’t in: THAT’S THE LONG AND THE SHORT OF IT!   We must then fall in line behind Hillary and our marching ordrs must be “No Enemies on the Left!   Anything else is EXTREME FOLLY that will certainly lead to political disaster.

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
April 24, 2016

 

Resurrection of a Heavy-Weight

Posted in Cultural Matters, Theater with tags , , on April 11, 2016 by playthell

 

Jack Johnson - played by Tommy Moore II

Tommie J. Moore as Jack Johnson
Tommie Moore brings Jack Johnson to Life in “Dare to Be Black”

Of all the difficulties facing an actor in the theater, the one man play is arguably the greatest.  Without a cast of actors to play against, the lone thespian must hold the attention of the audience and create dramatic tensions on his own.  He must be able to create bathos and pathos – comedic and tragic moments – with his verbal delivery and body language alone.  With only stage props, and sometimes recorded music, the actor must create an imaginary world and purely on the basis of his telling of the tale transport us into that world and make it real.

It is a task that has much in common with a solo piano performance for the artist, in that any shortcoming will be magnified and thus only a consummate master can pull it off.  Tommie Moore pulls it off grand fashion; it is as if Jack Johnson sprang before us fully alive and complete….like the goddess Athena sprang into the world full blown from the forehead of Zeus.

Mr. Moore is also the playwright, and as Shakespeare warned us: “The play is the thing.”  Hence the fate of a theatrical work is sometimes dictated before the actor ever looks at the script.  For if a play is badly written – or fatally flawed – not even great actors can salvage it no matter the caliber of their performance.  In this instance Moore has scored on all points because the script is brilliantly written.  And the way Mr. Moore came to write this work was a serendipitous affair; like so many creative works, whether it be in the arts or scientific discoveries.

The play has its origins in a chance encounter he had with an actress, who he now remembers only as “Barbara,” who was performing a one woman show playing Harriet Tubman, the great female abolitionist and “Conductor on the Underground railroad” that ferried runaway slaves out of the South into “Free Territory.” It was she who gave him the idea of writing a one man play about Jack Johnson. He recalls:

She told me that I should write a 15 minute monologue about Jack Johnson. At this time, I knew very little about Jack Johnson. I did much research and I was amazed.  His life was so intriguing. As I continued to research Jack Johnson, I felt sorry for him. How is his story not told? Why is Hollywood staying away from his true story? Why are Blacks staying away from his true story? It was then, I made a commitment to write a full production play. I wanted people to see Jack’s power, charm, and intelligence. He was not only a great boxer. He was a one-man activist. His life was an activist. He refused segregation. Whatever whites could do, Jack did. So now, here I am trying to educate the world about our First Black Heavyweight Champion. As well, as get him a pardon”

The paramount problem for any artistic treatment of historical subjects is to capture the zeitgeist of the era, to recreate the historical milieu so that we can experience the tenor of the times.  The most important themes of that era of American history was white supremacy and the inferiority of peoples of color, especially black people who had only recently emerged from slavery, in fact Jack Johnson’s parent’s had been slaves.  It was a time when the ideology of white supremacy permeated all phases of worthwhile human endeavor.  And the belief that white men were not only smarter that black men, but physically stronger and more courageous, was conventional wisdom.

And it was taken as gospel truth that white men were naturally also more sexually desirable than black men, hence any white woman that had sex with a black man was either deranged white trash or it was rape. And this assumption, like the ideology of white supremacy itself, was an article of faith throughout the dominant white world, which had conquered and colonized the millions of people living in “Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Islands of the seas” as Johnson’s black great intellectual giant and contemporary would put it in his famous statement: “The Problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line!”

The logic of white male sexual dominance was simply stated by the French General/Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte in the 18th century.  When Napoleon was informed that Alexander Dumas, a handsome black man who was his leading cavalry general and one of the greatest swordsmen in France, was banging his sister Bonaparte had him arrested.  He explained his actions thusly: “How can you convince a man that you are his superior if he is sleeping with your sister!”  While intellectuals like Dr. Dubois, Dr. Kelly Miller, James Weldon Johnson, Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells and others debated the veracity of the white supremacist myth, Jack Johnson shattered them by his actions: defeating Tommy Burns and winning the Undisputed World Heavy-Weight Championship and openly sleeping with white women.

Jack Johnson and Socialite Etta Durea
Jack and White Sweetie II
He openly violated the central Taboo of the era.

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She turned her back on white America for black Johnson

Indeed Jack contemptuously flaunted his violation of this all American taboo.  According to historian Jeffry T. Sammons in his seminal book “Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Civilization,” Johnson would routinely sleep with three white women after publicly humiliating white men in the ring.  Hence one of the enduring mysteries about Jack Johnson is why such a man was not lynched i.e. murdered in a public “ritual of blood” as the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson describes lynching in his chilling and insightful text “Rituals in Blood,” which he argues  is a form of “cannibalism” when black men were burned alive.

When Jack Johnson won the Heavy-Weight Championship in 1908 black men were being crucified in such murderous rituals at the rate of one every two and a half days, and as Dr. Rayford Logan shows in his masterwork “The Betrayal of the Negro,” this had been going on at that rate for twenty years!   That Johnson was able to do the things he did yet remain alive gave him the aura of a superman, and outraged white men of all classes.

He was a living breathing refutation of the white man’s claim to superiority over black men because they had acclaimed the Heavy-Weight Champion of the world the most potent man on earth!  Hence Johnson was the filthy black fly in their pristine bowl of white milk that must be removed at all cost. Yet, ironically, they only way to fully discredit Johnson and nullify the effects of his victory was to find a white man who could kick his black ass fair and square.  Thus began the search for “the great white hope.”

Amazingly Johnson was almost as interesting outside the ring; he was a bass player, bandleader, nightclub owner, aficionado of fast cars, a great dresser and lady’s man.  He was articulate, witty, cocky and was famous for his “golden smile – a reference to the gold crowns he wore on his teeth.  Tommie Moore manages to capture this unique outsized personality and his strange times in a bravura performance that brings this complex character to life and takes us back to the racially troubled milieu of early 20th Century America.

From the moment he walks out onstage, which is at the same level as the audience, except for the boxing ring that dominates this sparse set, he jokes with the audience and talks jive to the ladies in character.  Early on he hooked us and never let up as he spun tall tales about his life and times.

When he strips to the waist, displaying his finely muscled physique, the ladies squealed and we were amazed at how much he actually resembled Jack Johnson, who also possessed a sharply defined Physique.  Moore makes great use of the fact that Johnson fancied himself a thespian.  He aspired to play Othello, who like Johnson was a great black fighting man in a dominant white society who enraged some white men because he won the love of Desdemona, a beautiful white woman.

Choosing the scene where Othello is brought before the authorities and accused by her father of employing Black Magic to place her under his spell, Moore renders Othello’s explanation with a power that does justice to the Bard.  He also comes out in one scene, dressed to the nines in the fashion of the times, turns the music up on the radio and dances a dance that was au courant in that period.

Jack Johnson in fighting gear

Jack Johnson as a young fighter

He became the dominant sex symol of his day among white women

The play encapsulates the major issues that Johnson faced as a man who dared to be unapologetically black, and who whipped the toughest white men in public for a living.  Moore allows us to share Johnson’s disgust at the fact that after he defeated Tommy Burns for the World Heavy-Weight Championship the white press continued to refer to Jim Jefferies, who had retired while still Champion, as the Champ.  One of the things that make this play so powerful is the extent to which Moore incorporates Johnson’s actual words into his script, and here he renders them with perfect blend of amusement, anger and contempt.

This work is a tour de force that deserves a much wider audience, and unless all the producers in New York are blind, tasteless, spineless or racist in should find a path to Broadway.   As in all of his pearls of wisdom Shakespeare was certainly right when he observed “the play is the thing,” but it takes great actors to make it feel real….and Tommie Moore made us forget that he was just acting.  Which is what the Great British Thespian Sir Lawrence Olivier meant when he warned aspiring actors: “Acting is a noble profession…but a real actor must never be caught doing it.”

(See the Historic Johnson v Jefferies Fight)

https://youtu.be/esnq-orAvo8

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Playthell G. Benjamin
New York City
April 11, 2016

 

The World According to Hillary

Posted in On Foreign Affairs, On Israel, On War and Peace in the Mid East! with tags , , on April 3, 2016 by playthell
 Hillary Clinton at Stanford
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

 Hillary Clinton Reveals her Core Beliefs on Foreign Policy

Anyone who is listening to the contenders for the Democratic and Republican candidates for president will recognize that Hillary’s expertise cannot be matched by the Republican frontrunners.  Nevertheless, some of her policies make less sense that those of Donald Trump, a loose cannon whose misbegotten election to the US presidency most thoughtful observers of international relations around the world believe would be an unmitigated disaster.

The problem is that some of Hillary’s views on critical internationl issues are calcified relics of her history as a Cold War hawk.  She is committed to interventionist policies and says that NATO is America’s smartest investment.  For one who believes that the maintenance of NATO is a blunder of historical proportions that violates the spirit of the agreement with Russia ending the Cold War, and puts this nation in greater danger of a hot war with Russia than during the Communist era, a war which could go nuclear, the former Secretary of State sounds detached from political reality to me.

It is ironic that with her superior knowledge of foreign affairs Ms. Clinton should show less wisdom that Donald the Clown regarding the aims of US foreign policy.  For instance, Trump opposed the invasion of Iraq and correctly pointed out that the overthrow of Sadam Hussein would destabilize the region.  I had written the same thing on the eve of the invasion (See: “The Prophetic Commentary on Iraq,” on this site)   Today Trump went on the record stating his views on NATO, America’s most important and costly military alliance, and to my shock, surprise and profound disappointment  Trump’s ideas were decidedly more realistic and advanced than those of Clinton’s.

While Clinton champions NATO, Trump questions its continued existence, correctly pointing out that NATO is an anachronism that has outlived its original purpose.  In a recent “on the record” interview with the Editors of the Washington Post – where he first introduced his advisors on foreign policy and national security matters – Trump had this to say regarding America’s leadership of NATO:  “We certainly can’t afford to do this anymore, NATO is costing us a fortune, and yes, we’re protecting Europe with NATO, but we’re spending a lot of money.”  He also questioned the contributions of other members of the alliance “They are not doing anything,” he concludes.  On foreign policy Trump is like a broken clock that is wrong almost all the time but gets it right twice a day.

In order to point out the absurdity and danger of US commitment’s to NATO Trump had this to say regarding the conflict in the Ukraine, one of the most dangerous situations in the world: “

“Ukraine is a country that affects us far less than it affects other countries in NATO, and yet we’re doing all of the lifting. They’re not doing anything. And I say: ‘Why is it that Germany’s not dealing with NATO on Ukraine? Why is it that other countries that are in the vicinity of Ukraine, why aren’t they dealing? Why are we always the one that’s leading, potentially the third world war with Russia.’ “

A more accurate description would be to the second deployment of nuclear weapons in an international conflict, and this time it will be Dooms Day.  World wars are a phenomenon of the twentieth century, the next war between industrial nations will go nuclear and that will spell the end of the homo-sapiens species.  Although Trumps pronouncements lack elegance and are innocent of real erudition, despite their crudity some of them hit home.

His view of the Ukraine situation raises the fundamental questions that we should ask when evaluating America’s role there, a place where we could end up in an accidental war with a Russian military whose nuclear arsenal rivals our own.  And what is worse, because of our commitments to NATO we could become entangled in a military conflict with Russia should they have a military incident with Estonia!  Hence Trump is right to question both the relevance of this 20th century Cold War alliance designed to contain an enemy that has vanished from the face of the earth: The Soviet Union.

The fact that both Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz quickly attacked Trump’s position on NATO, and foreign interventionism in general, testifies to the truth of the axiom “Politics make strange bedfellows.”  The truth is that, despite differences in approach, both Clinton and Cruz deeply believe in the myth of “American Exceptionalism” and they also believe the United States is the rightful leader of the world and all nations must fall in line behind us and follow our wise counsel.  They were unambiguous on this point, and therein lies the problem.  Ironically, Bernie Saunders and Donald Trump are closer in their views of the US role in the world than they are with their party counterparts Clinton and Cruz….and Kaisch too.

Trump’s skepticism about US military involvement in foreign countries is greatly influenced by the amount of American treasure expended on the security of our allies.  For instance he says of South Korea, a country where the US still maintains military bases after 60 years – a blunder the Republican chicken hawks are eager to repeat in Iraq – and has never signed a treaty ending the war we fought on the Korean Peninsula all those decades ago.  “South Korea is very rich, great industrial country,” says Trump,  “and yet we’re not reimbursed fairly for what we do.  We’re constantly sending our ships, sending our planes, doing our war games — we’re reimbursed a fraction of what this is all costing.”

Yet despite these insights Trump often comes across as some sort of idiot savant when discussing national security issues; he is like the proverbial cow that gives a good bucket of milk then kicks it over.  For example his insane in the brain suggestion that South Korea and Japan should develop their own nuclear arsenals!    And his whacko plan to construct a wall on the Mexican border and coerce the Mexican government into paying for it; or his proposal to ban over a billion Muslims from the US, despite the fact that many are coming from countries America considers valued allies; or his call to attack the families of terrorists – a war crime reminicent of the Nazis!

Alas, to the horror of thoughtful people all over the globe, Trump took his animus toward Muslims to the point of utter madness in suggesting that he may nuke ISIS, and refused to take the option of firing nukes in Europe “off the table.”  Anybody who understands anything about nuclear weapons knows that they are weapons of mass genocide against civilian populations!  Hence, to even contemplate such a crime against humanity makes Trump unfit to be President – either because he is a dangerous ignoramus who does not understand the implications of what he is proposing, or he is the type of morally deformed cretin that would casually commit mass murder.  Next to this guy, and Teddy Cruz too, Hillary looks like a paragon of Solomonic wisdom…as dangerous and antiquated as some of her core beliefs are!

We need only examine her views on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as expressed in her speech before AIPAC – American Israel Public Affairs Committee – the most important organization in the all-powerful Israel Lobby, which maintains an effective strangle hold over US Middle East Policy.  Her performance was a shameful genuflection before the policies of the Israeli government, no matter how outrageous those policies appear to thoughtful principled Americans interested in a just peace in that troubled region.

Hillary Goes Nuts at AIPAC!

Hillary Clinton speaks to AIPAC

The Beleagured Palestian People are Invisible to her
 While this is what the rest of the world is witnessing
Palestinian GirlA Palestinian town reduced to rubble with the advanced weapons supplied by the US

To hear Hillary tell it only the Israeli’s have justified grievances; she showed no objectivity at all and no empathy for the plight of the beleaguered Palestinian people.  It is hard to know how to evaluate her statements.

The Real World of Palestinian Children

Palestinia boy in the sights of Israeli Soldier

Forever in the Gunsights of armed Israeli Settlers and Soldiers!

If Hillary truly believes her version of the relations between Israel and the Palestinians she is a nincompoop who never should have been Secretary of State, because despite the voluminous intelligence reports available to her about the realities of the region she appears to have learned nothing alas.  On the other hand, if she does not believe this Barney and Bailey view of Israeli/Palestinian relations then she is a shameless charlatan.  Hence we are left to pick our poison: Charlatan or fool for president!

As I write Clinton is demonizing President Putin with a paranoid view of his designs on Europe  that is a relic of the Cold War era, while attacking Trump for his suggestion that the US greatly reduce its role in NATO.  Yet even a cursory interrogation into the nature of this alliance should raise a red flag for those who want to steer this country away from a policy of perpetual war – and the increasing possibility of a catastrophic war with Russia.   Alas, whatever the considerable virtues of Hillary Clinton, she is no dove in matters of war and peace.

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem New York
 March 25, 2016

The Easter Parade In New York 2016!

Posted in The Easter Parades with tags , on March 31, 2016 by playthell
IMG_7729Coddling the Easter Bunny on 5th Avenue

Portraits from Easter Sunday in New York 

I love to be in New York during the Easter holidays because there is nothing like the Easter Parade in the City.  I can still remember vividly the first Easter I spent in the Big Apple when I was a teenager in high-school.  I cane up from Florida when school let out for the holidays to visit my Uncle Jimmy, who lived in a big beautiful Brownstone in Brooklyn.  On Easter morning my cousins and I hopped on the A train at Fulton Street and swooped up to 125th Street, Harlem’s main drag.

From the moment I emerged from the subway the scene was startling; elegantly dressed black folk were everywhere stylin and profilin in their Easter outfits.  Easter had been a big deal in Florida but this was like another world; everything was bigger and more dramatic.  After all, New York was then as now the fashion capitol of the world.  A great garment industry was based here and it seemed that everybody was sharp.  The experience left an indelible impression on me,  and to my eyes Harlem seemed the most glamourous place in the world!

When I moved to New York years later I also wanted to see the Easter Parade on 5th Avenue, mainly because of the marelous rendition of“Easter Parade” recorded by Sarah Vaugh and Billy Ekstine, two of the greatest singers of the 20th century.(Click the link at the bottom of this page to hear recording)  The poignant romantic portrait they paint of elegantly dressed folks promenading on Fifth Avenue, where most of the City’s great parades are held, was beguiling and I soon joined the Easter revelers.

Hangin Out on easter Sunday circa 1984

Lisa's Edit on Family Pic

Playthell, June and their Twins Makeda and Samori crusin in the Apple

 Every year we would dress to the nines with our kids and stroll down 5th Avenue.  Although my children no longer observe this tradition, I still get dressed and hang and “represent on the Five” every Easter that I am in New York.  And since I became interested in photography it is one of my favorite places to make pictures…images of  high fashion and sartorial grandeur, the art of self-decoration.

However, as it was in the beginning, I always start my Easter promenade uptown in Harlem, where some of the best dressed folks in the city are to be found. Then I work my way downtown – one gorgeous picture of a beplumed Asian lady was actually shot on the subway. Below are some of my favorite images of the Easter Parade 2016, uptown and downtown.

These Photographs were shot in Harlem, Rockerfeller Center, Fifth Avenue and Greenwich Village, from the top to the bottom of Manhattan Island.  And it is a visual kaliedescope of the “gorgeous human moasiac,” as former New York Mayor Dinkins was fond of describing New Yorkers.

 Click to hear “Easter Parade” by Vaughn and Eckstine
 https://youtu.be/gT2yCDXPdoI

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The Easter Parade in Harlem

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Abyssinia Fashion Fair Vintage Edit III

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Antonia

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Abyssinia Fashion Fair Edit I

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The Easter Parade Downtown

Asian Ladies at Radio city

The Chinese Ladies Dining in Rocjerfeller Center 

Asian Ladies on Easter

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Aisian Lady in Hat

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China Ladies -Edit I

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China Ladies -Edit I

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The Honey Mooners

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In Greenwich Village

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The Wackiest Hat in the Easter Parade

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Easter 2016
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