Wild About Harry: Belafonte @ Berklee

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A celebration of Harry Belafonte’s life and music at Berklee.

Great love fest and concert last night for the ever-dignified and charismatic Harry Belafonte, the “High School drop out getting an Honorary Degree from Berklee.”  At the age of 87, Belafonte stopped singing in public a few years ago,though you could spot him in the finale at least mouthing the words to “We Are the World,” the 1980s megahit for African famine relief that Belafonte brought in to being.

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Moments before awarded Harry Belafonte his honorary doctorate, Berklee President Roger Brown speaks about his remarkable career.

That’s just one of an incredible list of accomplishments recited by Berklee president Roger Brown before conferring an honorary Doctor of Music to the singer, songwriter, and activist, who noted that “Belafonte” literally translates as “fountain of beautiful things.”  The tone and feel-good vibe of the event (not to mention some incredible performances by Berklee students) is nicely summarized in today’s Boston Globe:

No artist has worked harder on behalf of truth and social justice than Belafonte. He bailed out Martin Luther King Jr. from a Birmingham, Ala., jail; was John F. Kennedy’s cultural ambassador to the Peace Corps; and helped raise more than $50 million for humanitarian aid in Africa by organizing the recording of “We Are the World.”

That is how the current generation of Berklee College of Music students knows the singer, said Larry Watson, the professor who produced the show, introducing a rousing encore of the song. But to an earlier generation — long before Michael Jackson crowned himself the King of Pop — Belafonte was the “King of Calypso.” He was the first recording artist to sell a million copies of a single album, and he had enduring hits with “Matilda” and “The Banana Boat Song” (that’s “Day O” to fans of “Beetlejuice” or “The Muppet Show”), both of which were part of the program presented by four dozen or so colorfully attired students.

When it came time for Belafonte to speak, he was his usual poignant, gripping, and humorous self,  recalling the first time he went onstage to sing at a jazz club in New York.   The great jazz pianist Al Haig had agreed to let him work up a short set of standards, beginning with “Pennies from Heaven.”   But, when the moment came, Belafonte recalled,  “Up jumped Max Roach to sit behind the drums. And then Tommy Potter picked up a bass.  Charlie Parker sat down with his sax. So I looked around at my backup band.  And I haven’t looked back since.”

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Parting shot from Belafonte: “After this, I’m going home and smoking a joint.”

The Mozdzer Motor

Fascinating visit with the remarkable Polish jazz pianist Leszek Mozdzer on the Spoleto Festival, as we recorded an interview between him and Jennifer Foster in the Cato Center.  Here’s the link to the program:
Spoleto Today 2010 June 1

Great dissection of how he channels Chopin into “the Mozdzer Motor” – and his John Cage-like habit of putting drinking glasses, combs, and even his own CDs on the piano strings to combat boredom.  Oh, and along the way we revealed to Mozdzer his unwitting hand in creating the Spoleto Today theme song!

We even had the chance to shoot a little video:

And here are more “Chopin Impressions” from Mozdzer:

Bravo for Brubeck

Nice to see Dave Brubeck get a well-deserved honor yesterday…the legendary jazzman came to Washington DC to honored with the Ben Franklin Award for Public Diplomacy – a sort of “lifetime achievement” award for Americans going abroad. The award was launched last year by our piano-playing Secretary of State, who noted at the ceremony yesterday, “As a little girl I grew up on the sounds of Dave Brubeck because my dad was your biggest fan.”

Here’s the link to the entire half-hour ceremony, courtesy of State’s website.

Or you can listen here to Brubeck’s moving comments about the emotional experience of playing in Poland for the first time a half-century ago….

AND listen to what he played when he put his “cold hands on this cold [and slightly out-of-tune] piano:” Dave Brubeck: Dziekuje (Thank You)

There’s also a very nice article about Brubeck’s incalcuable impact (with a wonderful slide show) as an overseas jazz ambassador during the ’50s and ’60s here.

Avant Gershwin

WASHINGTON – The reason I’m posting from downtown D.C. this morning has to do with the lady on the left — jazz vocalist Patti Austin, who helped to usher in the New Year with a dynamic all-Gershwin concert at the Kennedy Center last night. Patti’s two-set show, backed by a crackerjack octet (piano, guitar, bass, drums, sax, trumpet, ‘bone) was part of Toast of the Nation, NPR’s annual all-night New Year’s Eve jazz party. Yr Hmble Srvnt was on hand to produce the show for the net.

In my previous life coordinating this production was Tension City; the logistics of pulling off six live shows through multiple timezones is only dizzying when it’s not downright frightening. By comparison, spending a day backstage at the KenCen with old friends and terrific musiciains, old pros all, was pure pleasure.

That’s not to say there weren’t the usual hiccups and anxieties that arise anytime you’re producing live radio. To be sure, there were. But it was all redeemed by the music on stage: some really interesting arrangements of Gershwin standards, mostly drawn from Austin’s recent CD called Avant-Gershwin. The disc has been getting a lot of buzz — a pair of Grammy nominations, and USA Today critic Elyse Gardner even had it down as her Top Album of the Year, edging out Junior Senior and Springsteen’s Magic. — and if we didn’t get the memo, Patti was there to remind us. (As a veteran showbiz producer, she’s not the type to let these PR moments pass…..)

But the praise is hard-won and well-deserved. Her voice was in top form, and the arrangements by Michael Abene are clever, quirky, and swing. You can check out a couple of the CD cuts (recorded with the excellent WDR Big Band) here. The Kennedy Center show was the first time that Austin has taken the show on the road with a pared-down octet, and the results were pretty impressive, particularly for the second set that we broadcast live to the nation. Though I have to say that my lasting memory was a haunting version of But Not For Me, featuring just Patti and pianist Mike Ricchiutti.

But don’t take my word for it: check out the whole concert on the new NPR Music site.

Update 1/2/2008: Critic Mike Joyce talks about Patti’s “Star Jones Moment” in his review of the concert in today’s Washpost. You can read the review here.

The Rest of the Toast


WASHINGTON – Don’t want to sign off from D.C. without tipping the hat to the other performers I heard playing on New Year’s Eve, sitting in the back as a guest in NPR’s Studio 4A control room. Among the memories:

*Forget Auld Lang Syne…the Trio Da Paz, (joined by the redoubtable pianist Kenny Barron) playing at the Jazz Standard in New York, welcomed the New Year at Midnight (on the East Coast, anyway) with a performance of the Antonio Carlos Jobim standard Chega de Saudade, featuring vocalist Maucha Adnet.

*Nachito Herrera (see earlier post) and the Steele Family Singers doing a Cuban-tinged tribute to Earth, Wind & Fire at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant in Minneapolis.

*And an absolutely cookin’ set from the Convergence Sextet, led by trumpeter Greg Gisbert, at the great jazz club Dazzle in Denver. (This one was also recorded and broadcast in 5.1 Surround Sound, something we also did to ring in 2005.)

Unfortunately, for this jet-lagged traveler, (48 hours removed from the departure gate at Heathrow Airport), the blowout wrap-up show featuring the Count Basie Orchestra and vocalist Ledisi at the new Yoshi’s in San Francisco will have to be an online experience…way past my bedtime at that point.

The Madonna Model or the Radiohead Revolution?


So Madonna has given Warner Brothers the boot in favor of concert promoter Live Nation, while at the same time Radiohead has devised a pay-what-you’d-like scheme for their latest self-produced, self-distributed release, thumbing their noses at long-time label EMI. All in the space of a few days. The blogosphere – and the mainstream media, for that matter, are all a-twitter.

Have we reached, then, the Tipping Point? Is it curtains for certain for the much-lambasted Record Industry?

Frankly, I think the tipping has already happened. And I’m also not persuaded that the record industry’s days are over …. so long as they don’t think of themselves solely as purveyors of recorded, um “product” as Billboard magazine terms it.

One of the things I’ve discovered in plying the classical, jazz, folk, etc. waters over the years is that these minority formats tend to be the canaries-in-the-coal-mine for the bigger genres. Long before it was a gleam in Thom Yorke or Trent Reznor‘s eye, the excellent classically-oriented Magnatune label was offering the pay-what-you-think-its-worth option. And for some serious artists with serious credentials, too, many of whom had recorded for the so-called “major” labels. The Economist introduced me (and, it turns out, a whole of folks) to the Magnatune concept more than two years ago:

From a listener’s point of view, the firm’s website is enticing. You can legally listen, free of charge and with high sound quality, to full albums by any of the 200 or so artists who have signed to the label. (Your correspondent was immediately hooked by a song called Making Me Nervous by a one-man electro-pop band from Ottawa called Brad Sucks.) Music streamed is free, but to download it to your computer or burn CDs, you have to pay. Just how much is a matter of choice—Magnatune allows you to decide what the music is worth, and to pay as little as $5 for an album or as much as $18. Once paid for, the music is not locked up using digital-rights management software, so you are not prevented from making copies.…

Magnatune was born out of the simple reality that is known to any classical musician: You don’t make your money from record sales. There are possibly a half-dozen living classical musicians you have a positive income stream from their recordings: Yo-Yo Ma, James Galway, Renee Fleming, Placido Domingo, Van Cliburn, and… Andrea Bocelli? Go ahead, name another.

Same is true in jazz. I’ll bet the only artists that actually get any meaningful income from records are Dave Brubeck (thanks to the perennial popularity of Time Out, released in 1959) and maybe Diana Krall.

And even in larger the pop-music sea, that’s not and never has been where the money is — for 90% of the artists, that is. Even in the best of times working with a label was a deal-with-the-devil cost-of-doing-business proposition: You signed with a major because of the potential they represented to promote, market, and, if you got lucky, actually to move mass quantities of your physical “product” into the hands of your fans. Can’t do that selling your self-produced record out of the back of your trunk and running handbills off on a mimeo machine in the back room.

Hmmm…but in the iTunes world you suddenly don’t have to worry about having the supply to meet the demand, do you? Thus a big-name well-established act like Radiohead, with a carefully-cultivated image-conscious fan base, doesn’t really have much more use for EMI. No wonder the label’s new prez Terry Hands said it was a “wake up call,” according to a leaked internal e-mail:

The recorded music industry… has for too long been dependent on how many CDs can be sold,” Hands wrote. “Rather than embracing digitalization and the opportunities it brings for promotion of product and distribution through multiple channels, the industry has stuck its head in the sand.”

Hands warned that more artists could follow Radiohead’s lead and take their careers into their own hands. “Why should [superstar acts] subsidize their label’s new talent roster – or for that matter their record company’s excessive expenditures and advances?” asked Hands.

Why indeed? And that’s where the Madonna / Live Nation model is so interesting — it’s part of a larger chess match within the music industry:

Madonna’s deal to abandon Warner Music for concert promoter Live Nation signals more than just a tectonic shift in the music distribution business: It shows how far Live Nation is willing to go to break the hammerlock Barry Diller‘s Ticketmaster has on online concert ticket sales.

The core benefit to Live Nation of the $120 million recording and touring contract with the pop superstar is the opportunity to tap into concert, recording, merchandising and other lucrative revenue streams. But don’t discount the role that lowly ticket fees play.

   

Ticket buyers may be annoyed by the $5 or more in fees tacked on to every ticket ordered online or over the phone, but they’ve proven to be a gold mine for Ticketmaster. Ticketmaster’s revenues jumped 14 percent to $1.1 billion in 2006 and generated almost a 25 percent operating profit margin.

Thus, To these eyes the “three-CD deal” (with up to $50 million in “advance payments”) is really a “signing bonus” for Madonna, in order to cash in on where the REAL money will be made. I think Digital Music News editor Paul Resnikoff gets it right:

“…You can’t download a live concert – at least the real, in-the-flesh experience. Maybe you can hop onto BitTorrent and grab some amazing concert footage. Or even purchase a live performance album release. But what is your girlfriend (or boyfriend, bff, sibling, spouse, child, etc.) going to get more excited about – a video download, or a real ticket to a real show?One can be duplicated, viewed on-demand, and buried within a massive iTunes library. The other is a one-time, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Labels are now specialized in producing assets that can be reproduced instantly and infinitely. They are also specialized in an asset that is increasingly generating excitement for other assets they do not control.

Live Nation makes its money off of something that can never be duplicated. And that is why they can afford the elephantine deal terms to lure Madonna.

And even, if they don’t get all of the $120 million back out of Madonna (who will be 60 when the deal ends!), what’s the value to Live Nation if they can break Ticketmaster’s hammerlock on sales??? I’d say……Priceless.

So after reading all this, there IS a next logical step for the much-maligned record companies….what if Ticketmaster, for example, went out and bought EMI, a well-oiled production, distribution, and marketing machine?

On the Road – PRPD, Digital Lincoln, and Cuban Jazz


PHILADELPHIA – All quiet on the blog front lately, thanks to a combination of travel, deadlines, and Harpers Ferry business. But I’ve been saving up a lot of thoughts to share about the PRPD Conference last week in Minneapolis (PRPD stands for Public Radio Program Directors, now the biggest confab in pubradio) and some recent Nooze of the World (Radiohead’s “free” downloads, for starters). And there will doubtless be lots to share about the next couple of days here in Philly, where I’m a guest of the Rosenbach Museum and Library. They’re a fascinating operation with some interesting and varied stuff in their collection, including the Maurice Sendak Gallery (which for copyright-CYA reasons are not snapped for this blog but you can see them here).

Anyway, I’m in town to brainstorm with them about another significant part of their collection – a huge troves of materials around the 16th U.S. American President – Honest Abe’s letters, speeches, and other writings. The Rosenbach is looking to create a “Digital Community” based on the life story, ideas and words of Lincoln. That’s what I know so far, at least. Can’t wait to roll up the sleeves and dig in….once the effects of the Non-Dairy Creamer wear off…

Oh, and Cuban Jazz….this is also a blog about music, remember? One of the highlights of the Twin Cities trip was a visit to the excellent – and somewhat renowned – Dakota Jazz Club (in the bottom floor of the massive Target headquarters) to hear the Cuban emigre Nachito Herrera. All the ingredients for a Great Night Out..excellent company with co-owner Lowell Pickett, and WBGO Jazz 88 PD Thurston Briscoe, an outstanding meal, and Nechito’s wizardry on a variety of keyboards, rollicking through an oh-so-Cubano charged night of rhythm and moods, ranging from light classical to Heavy Weather. One of the many highlights: hearing Nechito accompanying his 16-year old daughter in a lights-out rendition of Besame Mucho. Mucho indeed!