Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 12, 1924: Now You Has Jazz

Advertised as an educational event, the “Experiment in Modern Music” drew a capacity crowd to New York City’s Aeolian Hall on the afternoon of February 12, 1924. Noted critics were in attendance as were such luminaries as John Phillip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Organized by the conductor of the Palais Royal Orchestra, Paul Whiteman, the concert was intended to introduce the new form of music called jazz and show audiences that it was a musical form to be reckoned with. True to its billing as educational, most of the concert had consisted of mind-numbing rather than toe-tapping music, two dozen little lessons that began to dissolve into one another as the audience grew antsier and antsier. At last (second to last, actually) a young Broadway composer sat down at the piano to perform a brand new piece written for the occasion.

His composition had been hastily created.  Just over a month earlier, whilegershwin in a Manhattan pool hall, he had read in a newspaper that he was scheduled to perform a jazz concerto at the Whiteman soiree. Painted into the proverbial corner, he set to work. The framework of his concerto came to him on a train journey: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise . . . And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end.”

The piece opened with an “outrageous cadenza of the clarinet,” now instantly recognizable, and “Rhapsody in Blue” metamorphosed into a showstopper of American music history. George Gershwin himself would, as a New York Times critic lacking restraint put it, “go far beyond those of his ilk.”

And now you has rock

Forty years later, on February 12, 1964, New York City would again be home to musical history.  This time the venue was Carnegie Hall and the occasion a major skirmish in the British invasion as the Beatles held their first concert in the U.S.  And not everyone thought they would go far beyond those of their ilk:  “Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody.” — Newsweek

Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 1: Order in the Court

All of y’rise,” said Victor Clovis who most of the time drove a taxi, shuffling tourists from one island rendezvous to another, but who, on the rare occasions when court was in session, served as whatever court personnel might be needed. Except judge, of course. Those duties fell to the short gentlemen who stood rather pretentiously behind the unpretentious teacher’s desk in one of the three rooms in Ste. Catherine School. Student desks had been pushed to one side of the room to make room for grown-up folding chairs, and court was now in session.

Everyone in the classroom/courtroom did indeed rise as instructed, everyone being Regina Napoleon, her husband Corso, his friend Max Rollo, and a good dozen townspeople who had nothing to do on this hot summer day. Court proceedings were rare on the island, and they were timed to fit into the judge’s semi-annual visits.

Mrs. Napoleon was the plaintiff in this particular case, her husband and his friend Rollo the defendants. She stood before a chair to the judge’s right, facing, at about six feet away on the judge’s left, the two men.

Okay, be seated,” Victor intoned, after the judge had seated himself.

The judge was not long on ceremony. Victor felt a little slighted that he was not given the opportunity to instruct Mrs. Napoleon on the matter of the whole truth and nothing but the truth before the judge started right in with questions.

So you are charging the two defendants with attempted murder, is that correct?”

That’s absolutely correct, your most honorific sir, “ answered Mrs. Napoleon.

Even though one of them is your husband?”

He’s the worst of the two, don’t you know. He’s an animal.”

And they attempted this murder by immersion in a barrel of rum?”

If that means they tried to drown me, that they did. That they did.”

Please explain.”

I was whacking some conch with a board – that makes them tender, perfect for conch chowder. I make a nice conch chowder, lots of conch and good vegetables – well they came in with big grins on their ugly faces and the look of evil in their eyes.”

Defendant Napoleon stood and grinned at the judge. “I was drunk, you see.”

Defendant Rollo rose and added: “So was I, that’s the truth.”

We’ll hear your story by and by,” snapped the judge. “Now please sit. Mrs. Napoleon, you were saying the two defendants had the look of evil in their eyes. Do you agree that they were drunk?”

Oh my yes,” answered Mrs. Napoleon. “They were lit up to their very gills. I never like to see the two of them together, especially not when they’re in their cups. And still they were drinking. ‘There’ll be mischief,’ I said to myself.”

continued

Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Advertisements
Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 9, 1909: Den of Iniquity

Thanks to descriptions by authors such as Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, the opium den became a sinister staple of 19th century literature — an evil place where degenerates, mostly foreigners, mostly Chinese, lounged around on pillows, smoking their pipes, vacant eyes benumbed by clouds of opium fumes. The stories were far more fanciful than reality, but opium dens did exist and they soon drew the wrath of temperance advocates, missionaries and moral reformers.

In the United States, San Francisco, inspired by a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, outlawed public opium dens in 1875, as did many other communities with Chinese populations. Smoking opium did, however, remain legal. Then in 1909, the U.S. Congress stepped in.

Never mind that only one in a thousand Americans smoked opium. The State Department determined that an initiative against opium smoking would be useful in opening the door to China, which resented British demands to allow opium trade following the two Opium Wars. An international commission instigated by the U.S. signed a treaty banning the opium trade. As a result, the State Department called on Congress to ban the import of opium for smoking favored by Chinese immigrants. And on February 9, 1909, Congress passed the Opium Exclusion Act, creating the first illegal drug in America and unleashing an army of government agents to chase down smugglers, bust dealers and raid dens. The 100-year War on Drugs had begun.

Smoking Leeches

In 1841, doctors tried opium (it was still legal) as well as leeches to save President William Henry Harrison, born on this day in 1773.  To no avail.  Old Tippecanoe (and Tyler Too) became the first president to die in office, turning up his presidential toes just a month after taking office, the shortest tenure of any U.S. president.  He also holds the record for the longest inaugural speech at 31 days which may have been a factor in his death.  Actually it was two hours; it just seemed that long.  And it didn’t contribute to his death, although it might have to members of the audience.

Smoking Bananas

carmenOn the same day, over in Portugal, nowhere near an opium den, Carmen Miranda was born, immigrating to Brazil as an infant.  Larger than life, but tiny in stature, she stood only 5’1” without her tower of bananas.  Nevertheless, she filled a stage with her Latin energy and machine gun delivery, melodic Brazilian bullets ricocheting everywhere.  She and her samba stormed the United States in 1939 – nightclubs, radio, movies – and by 1945 she was a superstar. In 1955, after filming an appearance on the Jimmy Durante television show, at 46 years of age, she died of a heart attack.

 

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 5, 1957: One If By Land, Two If By Saxophone

It has been endlessly debated when and with whom rock and roll actually began, but most enthusiasts have pretty much settled on a guy who cut an unlikely figure for a rock artist but who brought rock and roll into the public eye with a bang in 1955. The man was Bill Haley, along with his Comets, and the song was “Rock Around the Clock” introduced in the film Blackboard Jungle. During the next few years a string of hits including “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “See Ya Later, Alligator” followed.

Time passes quickly and when you’re at the pinnacle of musical stardom, you’re on a slippery slope. Along comes a guy named Elvis and you’re yesterday’s sha-na-na. Who’s going to scream and carry on for a thin-haired, paunchy 30-year-old musician with a silly curl in the middle of his forehead and a garish plaid sports jacket?

The Brits, that who.

By 1957, Bill Haley and the Comets had already enjoyed their golden days of American super-stardom. But the battle of Britain lay ahead. When they stepped off the Queen Elizabeth in Southampton on February 5, they began the first ever tour by an American rock and roll act and launched what rock historians called the American Invasion.

When Haley and the band reached London later that same day, they were greeted by thousands in a melee the press called “the Second Battle of Waterloo.” These were the British war babies just becoming teenagers, and they were ready for American rock and roll. Among those who turned out for Bill Haley and the Comets were a few that would make their own music history.

“I’ve still got the ticket stub in my wallet from when I went to see Bill Haley and the Comets play in Manchester in February 1957—my first-ever concert” said Graham Nash. “Over the years I’ve lost houses . . . I’ve lost wives . . . but I’ve not lost that ticket stub. It’s that important to me.”

“The birth of rock ‘n’ roll for me?” said Pete Townshend, “Seeing Bill Haley and The Comets . . . God, that band swung!”

“The first time I really ever felt a tingle up my spine was when I saw Bill Haley and The Comets on the telly,” said Paul McCartney. “Then I went to see them live. The ticket was 24 shillings, and I was the only one of my mates who could go as no one else had been able to save up that amount. But I was single-minded about it. I knew there was something going on here.”

No Peeping Now

In 1861, Samuel B. Goodale who hailed from Cincinnati received a patent for a clever hand-operated stereoscope device on which still pictures were attached like spokes to an axis which revolved which caused the pictures to come to life in motion — a mechanical peep show that folks viewed through a small hole for a penny a pop.  The usual subjects for peep shows were animals, landscapes,  and theatrical scenes, but they eventually descended into naughtiness.  The term peep show itself comes from Peeping Tom, a sneaky British tailor who made a hole in the shutters of his shop so he might surreptiously spy on Lady Godiva who felt the need to ride naked naked through the streets of the city.  He was struck blind for his effort.

 

 

 

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 1, 1896: Poor People of Paris

Opera patrons packed the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, on the evening of February 1, 1896, for the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s latest, La Boheme. Conducting the evening’s performance was a rising young star, Arturo Toscanini. Critics were divided over the opera, but audiences lapped it up, and it remains the world’s most popular opera. It is a timeless story of love among struggling young artists in Paris during the 1830s.

Our Bohemians– a poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher — share a garret in the Latin Quarter as they try to eke out a living. It’s Christmas Eve; it’s cold. Rodolfo, the poet, and Marcello, the painter, are feeding a small fire with one of Rodolfo’s manuscripts. Their two companions arrive with food and fuel, one having had the good fortune to sell a bit of music. As they eat and drink, the landlord comes looking for their overdue rent. They distract him with wine and, pretending to be offended by his stories, throw him out. The rent money is divided for a night out in the Latin Quarter. Rodolfo stays behind as the other three leave, fortuitously, as a pretty neighbor comes looking for a light for her candle: “They call me merely Mimi.” Merely Mimi faints (she’s not well, folks), she and Rodolfo immediately fall in love, and they head off to the Latin Quarter, singing of their love.

In Act 2, our Bohemians are making merry in the Latin Quarter. Marcello’s one-time sweetheart, Musetta, enters on the arm of the old but wealthy Alcindoro. Trying to get Marcello’s attention, she sings an aria about her own charms (Musetta’s Waltz, recorded as Don’t You Know by Della Reese in 1959). She sends Alcindoro off on a bogus errand and promptly leaps into Marcello’s arms. They all scurry off, stiffing the returning Alcindoro for the check.

Act 3 brings a series of flirtations, jealousies, lovers’ quarrels and, for Mimi, a lot of coughing. At this point, we’re pretty sure she’s not going to make it through Act 4.

Which she doesn’t. After a few attempts at being cheerful, the others leave Mimi and Rodolfo who recall their meeting and happy days together until Mimi is overtaken by violent coughing. The others return, Mimi drifts into unconsciousness and dies.

Enrico Caruso owned the role of Rodolfo during his life, as did Luciano Pavarotti. And Maria Callas was all over Mimi.

Perelman Among Swine

S.J. Perelman was an American humorist, author, and screenwriter, perelmanknown primarily for his humorous short stories, first published in The New Yorker and other magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. He co-authored with Ogden Nash the book for the Broadway musical One Touch of Venus (music by Kurt Weill) which ran for more than 500 performances beginning in 1943. His movie collaborations include a couple of Marx Brothers outings and the award-winning screenplay for Around the World in 80 Days. He recounted his own trip around the world in a collection of humorous vignettes called Westward Ha!. The surrealistic travails on his Pennsylvania farm, were collected into books such as Acres and Pains. Perelman was born on February 1, 1904 and died in 1979.

You’ll have to leave my meals on a tray outside the door because I’ll be
working pretty late on the secret of making myself invisible, which may take me almost until eleven o’clock.

A farm is an irregular patch of nettles bounded by short-term notes, containing a fool and his wife who didn’t know enough to stay in the city.

In pulp fiction it is a rigid convention that the hero’s shoulders and the heroine’s balcon constantly threaten to burst their bonds, a possibility which keeps the audience in a state of tense expectancy. Unfortunately for the fans, however, recent tests reveal that the wisp of chiffon which stands between the publisher and the postal laws has the tensile strength of drop-forged steel.

“Have a bit of the wing, darling?” queried Diana solicitously, indicating the roast Long Island airplane with applesauce. I tried to turn our conversation from the personal note, but Diana would have none of it. Soon we were exchanging gay banter over the mellow Vouvray, laughing as we dipped fastidious fingers into the Crisco parfait for which Diana was famous. Our meal finished, we sauntered into the play-room and Diana turned on the radio. With a savage snarl the radio turned on her and we slid over the waxed floor in the intricate maze of the jackdaw strut.

As one who achieved the symmetry of a Humphrey Bogart and the grace of a jaguar purely on pastry, I have no truck with lettuce, cabbage and similar chlorophyll.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

January 14, 1500: For the Ass Was a Donkey, You See

The Feast of the Ass held on January 14 from around 1100 until 1500 was meant as much as teach-in as a party-in, a way to present religious doctrine to the illiterati who had no books or Internet access. This festival, held primarily in France as a cousin to the Feast of Fools, celebrated the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt.

Traditionally, the most beautiful young woman in the village splendidly attired in gold-embroidered cloth, carrying a small child and riding a donkey would be led in a solemn procession through the town to the church. The donkey would stand beside the altar while a mock Mass was performed. Instead of the usual responses to the priest, the congregation would “hee-haw.” At the end of the service, instead of the usual benediction, the priest would bray three times and the congregation would respond with another round of hee-hawing. The choir would then offer up a hymn and everyone would bray along — except for the ass who thought the whole thing rather ridiculous and that these people were all making you know whats of themselves.

Another story from these Years of the Ass featured King Henry IV (of France not England as in yesterday’s post). The king was visiting a small town where he found himself listening to and growing tired of a long and rather stupid speech being delivered by the mayor. As the mayor spoke a donkey brayed loudly and the king with a tone of the greatest gravity and politeness, said: “Pray, gentlemen, speak one at a time, if you please.”

How Cold Was It?

January 14 is also St. Hilary’s Day which honors 4th century bishop St. Hilarius who sounds like a pretty jolly fellow.  In England, the day is considered the coldest day of the year, probably because of the great frost that began on this day in 1205 and lasted through March.  In many subsequent years, folks would hold festivals with thousands of them stomping around on the frozen Thames.

. . . pickpockets were sticking their hands in strangers’ pockets just to keep them warm.

. . .  politicians had their hands in their own pockets.

. . . the squirrels in the park were throwing themselves at an electric fence.

. . . when I turned on the shower I got hail.

. . . mice were playing hockey in the toilet bowl.

 

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

JANUARY 13, 1404: SILVER THREADS AND GOLDEN NEEDLES

On January 13, 1404, the British Parliament under the guidance of King Henry IV signed into law an act that would endear them all to millions of today’s schoolkids — the Act Against Multipliers. Oops. Turns out he wasn’t outlawing multiplication tables. Back then multipliers were what we know as alchemists.

Alchemy actually had a somewhat noble background. Alchemists sought to purify, mature and perfect certain things — an elixir of immortality here, a cure-all for disease there, perfection of the human body, perfection of the human soul. But what really got the alchemists’ juices flowing was the use of philosopher’s stone to transform base metals into “noble metals” such as gold and silver.

And that’s exactly what Henry was making illegal — the possibility of some commoner making himself very rich, causing a redistribution of wealth and income equality that would bring ruin on the state. It would be as if in the U.S. today any Tom Dick or Harry could own as large and garish hotel as a president.

Therefore “none from henceforth should use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication, and if any the same do, they incur the pain of felony.” Off with their heads, most likely.

Philosopher’s stone is available from Amazon.

Where’s a Henry IV When You Need Him?

On January 13, 1854, alchemist turned musical inventor Anthony Foss received a patent for his accordion, a strange device shaped like a box with a bellows that is compressed or expanded while pressing buttons or keys which cause pallets to open and air to flow across strips of brass or steel, creating something that vaguely resembles music. It is sometimes called a squeezebox. The person playing it is called an accordionist (or squeezeboxer?)

The harmonium and concertina are cousins. And, yes, there is a World Accordion Day.

M – I – C.  K – E – Y . . .

The first Mickey Mouse comic strip appeared on January 13, 1930:

Island in the Sun, Conclusion

Several days passed before the bulldozer arrived.  During that time, Santo kept a constant vigil at the olive tree.  During the day, tourists passing by would sometimes stop to talk to Santo.  Most had already heard of the crazy man and his olive tree, but Santo’s disarming smile and his bullfriendliness would make them wonder whether he were crazy or merely a man with a cause, which is hardly so crazy.  Knowing that he remained night and day at the tree, some would bring him food and would sit and talk with him while he ate.

The young couple from the south of England shivered as Santo told them about sleeping on the dock in Trinidad after loading a banana boat and awaking to find a fat tarantula sitting on his chest staring at him.  The three ladies from California gushed over his tales of Spain during the last days of Generalissimo Franco.  And the young Montrealer listened until well after midnight as Santo talked of his time in Algeria with the French Foreign Legion.

The bulldozer arrived early the next morning.  Santo had to shake himself awake, and for a moment, he thought he was awaking from a nightmare in which he was about to be eaten by a huge yellow monster.  But even with his eyes open, the yellow monster remained, growling at him.

“Go away, crazy one,” shouted Luis Jordan from atop the chugging beast. Luis was a young man who had come to the island to do construction work; he didn’t belong on the island.  He was an angry, combative young man, frequently picking fights, and Santo didn’t like him much.  “You don’t think I’ll plow you down, do you, crazy man?”

“I am not crazy,” answered Santo.  “Go away.”

“Don’t be smart with me, crazy man.  You won’t stop me.  I don’t care if you live or die.  You’re trespassing.  I can plow you under and nobody will say anything.  I’ll take down that damn tree, and I’ll take you down with it.  Believe me.”

“I believe you.”

“As you should,” boasted Luis.  “Now stand aside.”

“I can’t stand aside.  This is my place.  It was my mama’s and my papa’s, and it was their mama’s and papa’s.  Go away and leave me alone.”

“I warned you,” said Luis, grinning as though he were really happy that Santo would not move, that he would have the pleasure of plowing him under.  “Good riddance to your lunacy.”  The bulldozer’s engine whined, and the beast lurched forward.  Santo stood his ground as the yellow monster bore down on him, it’s driver laughing.  Santo closed his eyes.

The Crystal Coral Beach Club was a magnificent place.  It straddled a mile’s worth of white sand beach and bathed it in grandeur and opulence.  Open for the first time this season, it was an unqualified success, drawing tourists from throughout the world and remaining fully occupied.  Hopes were high that it would bring years of prosperity to the tiny island.

On this day, the first anniversary of groundbreaking for the beach club, a large throng of tourists had gathered together.  The story of the Beach Club’s shaky beginnings had traveled from the swimming pool to the tennis courts to the lounge and to the bright blue water and back.  This was to be a celebration of that day of confrontation.

The olive tree had grown to nearly ten feet and was beautiful to behold; looking at this tree, it was hardly surprising that so many people considered olive trees holy.  Santo emerged from the modest house just beyond the tree, a house flanked by hibiscus, bougainvillea, and the beach club’s 156 luxury rooms.  Santo the celebrity beamed as he joined the others at the tree and shared a toast with the couple from the south of England, the three ladies from California, the Montrealer, and the others who had been here last year, the ones who had ignored the metallic whine of impending doom to suddenly join Santo in front of his tiny tree, linking their arms with his in defiance of the bulldozer.

With a grin, Santo pointed to where, even though it defied all the rules of horticulture and all the laws of botany (but didn’t surprise Santo or his friends one little bit), a single olive clung tenaciously to a branch of his olive tree.

 Listen to Island in the Sun

Island in the Sun is one of 15 stories in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

JANUARY 10, 49 BC: WADE IN THE WATER

Back in 49 BC, Julius Caesar was a mere governor commissioned by the Roman Senate to oversee a portion of the empire that stretched from Gaul to Illyricum (pretty much most of today’s Europe except Italy). When his term of governorship ended, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Whatever you do, Julie baby, don’t bring that army across the Rubicon River for that is treason and insurrection and very bad manners. Oh, and the punishment is death.

Caesar may have misunderstood for didn’t he just up and cross the Rubicon into Italy on January 10. His biographer suggests that he was under the control of a supernatural apparition (the Devil made him do it). Willful or not, Caesar is said to have shouted “alia iacta est” as he and his merry men waded across the shallow river (or ‘the die has been cast,” certainly more dramatic in Latin).

Crossing the Rubicon was a declaration of war, but instead of arresting Caesar the Roman Senate fled Rome in fear. Caesar, far from being condemned to death, became dictator for life. Sometimes it’s good to cross the Rubicon. Crossing the Rubicon has endured as a phrase meaning passing a point of no return.

The Hole in My Record Is Bigger Than the Hole in Your Record

RCA Victor it might be said crossed the Rubicon when on January 10, 1949, it introduced a new kind of record — a vinyl disc, just seven inches in diameter with a great big hole in the middle, the 45 (referring to its revolutions per minute). The 45 replaced the big noisy shellac disc that rotated at a breakneck 78 rpm. The first 45 rpm single was “Peewee the Piccolo.” Remember it?

Tata, Toodle-oo and Nano Nano

The cheapest car of the 21st century (so far) was trotted out on January 10, 2008, by its manufacturers, Tata Motors of India. The Nano, as it’s tata_nano_na-known, was a four-door metal bubble about ten feet long with a price tag of $2,500. Its makers called it the People’s Car, a vehicle for families who previously hadn’t been able to afford a car (yes, Volkswagen has been there, done that).

The basic model cost even less —  a mere $2,000, but came without a radio, air conditioning, airbags, steering, or windows (make that power steering or windows).

The Nano was made primarily of recycled computer printers. It had a 32-horsepower, rear-mounted engine, and could reach speeds of 65 miles per hour and 18 copies per minute. It had just one windshield wiper.

Tata received more than 203,000 pre-orders for the Nano, but because Tata was only able to produce an initial 100,000 Nanos, the cars’ lucky first owners were chosen by lottery. The Nano was initially sold only in India, although Tata said it eventually intended to spread it throughout the world.

Lest you think Tata Motors is a questionable business concern, it is part of one of India’s largest and oldest business conglomerates. And Tata, in addition to those Nano Nanos, manufactures Jaguars and Land Rovers.

The Bun Knows

On January 10, 1984, 81-year-old Clara Peller first asked the question for which she would become famous: