Here’s some things to keep you occupied while we all stay inside. Hope you enjoy, I’ll update more as the days go on.
Desert Island Discs - BBC Radio’s long running series (over 3000 episodes since 1942) where people of note are asked to bring eight recordings, a book, and a luxury item with them on a desert island. Some guests of note:
The Louis Armstrong episode has one truly remarkable pick. When the episode was taped in 1968 he was 67 years old. Out of eight tracks he could bring, seven were his own recordings. When you hear him describe them though, I don’t think there’s any narcissism behind his reasoning. He talks about the records like great moments he got to share with his bandmates. At the time of most of these recordings there wasn’t any overdubbing or studio multitracking, just the band getting together in a room and playing their set. For him they sound closer to home videos.
There is one exception though: Barbra Streisand’s “People.” And this is just incredible to me. The song came out in 1964, when Streisand was a 22 year old Broadway/pop star. Louis was a 63 year old man, and a living legend of jazz. This track moved him so deeply that four years later he decided it was the one recording (besides his own) worth listening to for the rest of his life. This gives me a lot of hope in the perennial beauty of things, or in the possibilities of the future, that in 40 years somebody who isn’t yet born might sing a song that moves me more than any other.
Bob Dylan’s fabled 1966 World Tour
These are clips from Dylan’s electric tour through England, backed by the legendary musicians who’d later come to be known as The Band. Dylan had just gone from folk hero to rockstar and many of his fans felt he’d betrayed their movement. The heckling on this tour became iconic in its own way; one audience member famously shouted “Judas!” to which Dylan replied, “I don’t believe you.” Read more about it here. Don’t know where to start with Bob Dylan? You can try Blonde on Blonde (especially tracks 3-8), The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, or Blood on the Tracks.
Our boy Sam’s hero Bill Evans talks at length about creativity, teaching yourself, and developing your own musical voice. There’s a great part of this video at around the 13-minute mark where he plays different approaches on the piano to contrast “working simply and honestly within the framework” against “vague, confused approximation” and yet all of it sounds masterful and gorgeous (to me, at least). He was truly operating on a different level. To hear some more of his work you can listen to Waltz for Debby, Portrait in Jazz, and Sunday at the Village Vanguard.
So in 1957 a bunch of icons were asked to appear on one of the first televised jazz specials, CBS’s The Sound of Jazz. Billie Holiday was joined by Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Coleman Hawkins (among others) to perform one of the few songs she ever wrote in her career, the sultry blues “Fine and Mellow.” Lester and Billie were lifelong friends and collaborators who hadn’t seen each other in years, and they were both in poor health at the time of shooting. This performance was not only a reunion for them, but the last time they would ever see one another. The jazz critic Nat Hentoff described Lester’s performance, which you can hear at the 1:27 mark:
“Lester got up, and he played the purest blues I have ever heard, and they were looking at each other, their eyes were sort of interlocked, and she was sort of nodding and half–smiling. It was as if they were both remembering what had been—whatever that was. And in the control room we were all crying. When the show was over, they went their separate ways.”
Two years later Billie spoke at Lester’s funeral, at one point saying “I’ll be the next to go.” She passed away three months later.
But we don’t have to focus on the tragedies here, we’re keeping sane in these strange times! Beyond the obvious magic and charm of this performance, what I love so much about this clip is how it shows the longevity of the stank face. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about: when you’re jamming with a friend and they lay down some serious butter on their instrument the universal reaction seems to be something between a smile and a “yeuch” face. It’s the response to a sensation that somehow enters your ears and then pulls from your gut. Maybe it even evokes a laugh or a yelp. And in this video from over sixty years ago, this incredible woman who was born in 1915 and led one of the most influential music careers in history can’t help but do the same.
Mos Def is captured on film hanging out in the studio, talking about his love for MF DOOM and breaking down some of his best lines. Always cool to see famous musicians stanning their peers. If you don’t know who DOOM is, check out the albums Madvillainy or MM.. Food. If you don’t know Mos Def, try Black on Both Sides.
Scott showed me this recently - Leonard Bernstein was a world famous American conductor, here he is narrating the musical storytelling of a Debussy piece. It’s quite technical from a music theory perspective but I think his passion translates even for non-musicians. And then: Leonard Bernstein conducting this piece
This is a hysterical, weird moment in musical history (I apologize for the video quality, can’t find much better than this). So here’s some backstory and play-by-play: in 1983 James Brown was, at this point, an enduring legacy act with his commercial peak ten years behind him. But keep in mind he practically invented the musical and stylistic template of funk. Without JB there would be neither a Prince nor an MJ. If you don’t believe me check out this 1966 TV performance, especially the footwork at the 2:00 mark.
Anyway, during his show, the now 50-year-old James Brown announces that Michael Jackson is in the crowd and says “you gotta come up and say something!” Jackson was a year out from Thriller and was, arguably, bigger than God. And he goes up and kills it. He does a thirty second “MJ-as-young-JB” thing that he had probably been practicing in the mirror since he was five years old and it’s a perfect little passing of the torch moment.
But then Michael leans in James’s ear and there’s a kind of awkward back and forth before James announces “and ALSO, he just insisted that I introduce Prince, he’s here!” And you get the feeling that maybe James Brown didn’t quite know who Prince was. This was 1999 era Prince, so he had a few big hits but wasn’t quite the international superstar that he’d become a year later with Purple Rain. And on top of this, Prince and Michael Jackson couldn’t stand each other. They never publicly acknowledged it but they had a professional rivalry that bordered on personal disdain. So my gut says this invitation was spiteful: Michael Jackson, the recently coronated King of Pop, just nailed a spontaneous display of showmanship upon the invitation of the Godfather of Soul, and was now forcing Prince up basically to say “now you do something.”
And so Prince piggybacks his way to the stage on a roadie’s shoulders. I cannot believe this footage exists. Brown tells him he’s gotta do something, so he borrows a band member’s guitar and attempts a solo. I can tell you from experience this is often embarrassing: when you pick up someone else’s guitar it takes a second to adjust to the different neck feel, strap height, pedals, etc. Even the most seasoned guitarist is likely gonna play below their ability level in these circumstances. In this case Prince just picked up (I think, from what I can see in this 240p video) a Fender Telecaster with no distortion and no reverb. Great for quick funk licks, terrible for the face-melting solos we all know he can usually deliver. So he spends an awkward minute trying to do something impressive with this setup before deciding “this isn’t working, I should just take off my shirt.”
He then goes to the mic and delivers his own version of the iconic James Brown mic stand move followed by his version of the James Brown shriek, then tries to dance a bit more before pulling down a stage prop and walking off into the crowd.
Prince definitely comes off as a moody weirdo in all of this but I gotta say I sympathize with him here, it’s usually a terrible feeling when someone calls you onstage without any preparation. There’s no polite way to decline in front of a crowd. I was once at a party and someone said “Oh you’re a singer? Sing something!” and I said “uhh okay… heeey Jude!” And we both felt weird.
Another strange, yet this time beautiful little moment that speaks to Marvin’s artistic confidence. If you don’t know much of his music - wow WHAT you are in for a treat - start with one of the greatest albums ever made, What’s Going On.