Cartoon of the Day

April 30, 2008

Led by Pelosi, Democrats plan largest war spending ever

April 30, 2008

House Democratic leaders are putting together the largest Iraq war spending bill yet, a measure that is expected to fund the war through the end of the Bush presidency and for nearly six months into the next president’s term.

Full Article

Justice for Sean Bell

April 29, 2008

Dallas man freed by DNA testing after 27 years in prison

April 29, 2008

Another innocent life ruined.

James Lee Woodard is the 17th person to be freed by DNA testing in Dallas County, which holds the dubious honor of having more DNA exonerations than any other county in the nation.

Another fine moment in the history of “Texas Justice”.

Dallas man freed by DNA testing after 27 years in prison

By SCHUYLER DIXON, Associated Press Writer Tue Apr 29, 12:43 PM ET

DALLAS – A Dallas man who spent more than 27 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit was freed Tuesday, after being incarcerated longer than any other wrongfully convicted U.S. inmate cleared by DNA testing.

James Lee Woodard stepped out of the courtroom and raised his arms to a throng of photographers. Supporters and other people gathered outside the court erupted in applause.

“No words can express what a tragic story yours is,” state District Judge Mark Stoltz told Woodard at a brief hearing before his release.

Full Article

Gil Scott-Heron speaks up again

April 29, 2008

by Len Righi
The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
29 April 2008

Give props to Gil Scott-Heron for the cutting-edge topicality of his best street poetry and jazz-inflected R&B over the last four decades and the activist performer will accept the compliment graciously, albeit with reservations.

For instance, the celebrated anti-apartheid track “Johannesburg” – his first chart single and the opener on his 1976 album “From South Africa to South Carolina” – spotlighted an issue that was under most Americans’ radar but would soon become a bone of contention during the Reagan era.

“By the time I wrote that in 1974, Nelson Mandela had been in jail for 12 years,” Scott-Heron quickly points out during a conversation from his New York City home, disavowing any exceptional foresight in the process. “The subject of apartheid wasn’t new. It’s all about perspective, how you look at it.

“When we (Scott-Heron and musical collaborator Brian Jackson) did `Johannesburg,’ we wondered how something that important to the world had attracted so little attention. All of these smart people in and out of government overlooked it, so we tried to say something about it.”

Since 1970, when he informed both white and black America that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Chicago-born and Jackson, Tenn.-bred Scott-Heron has eloquently and acerbically had his say on subjects such the scourge of alcohol and drug addiction (“The Bottle,” “Angel Dust”); President Nixon’s crimes (“H2O Gate Blues”) and subsequent pardon (“We Beg Your Pardon”); reactionary politics and politicians (“Bicentennial Blues,” “B Movie,” “Re-Ron”), and the dangers of nuclear power (“We Almost Lost Detroit”).

Sadly, Scott-Heron, who inspired a legion of political rappers with albums such as “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,” “Pieces of a Man” and “Winter in America,” has spent a chunk of this decade behind bars.

In 2001, he was sentenced to one to three years for cocaine possession. He was released on parole in 2003, but in 2006 he was sentenced to two to four years for violating a plea deal (he left a treatment center claiming he was denied medication to treat HIV). He was again paroled last May.

Since then, the now 59-year-old Scott-Heron has been performing and finishing a book, “The Last Holiday,” about Stevie Wonder’s successful campaign to have the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday made a national holiday.

Scott-Heron’s band includes percussionists Tony Duncanson and Larry MacDonald; bassist Robert Gordon (“the secretary of entertainment,” says Scott-Heron); guitarist Ed Brady (“the only black member of the Brady Bunch”); keyboardist-singer Kim Jordan, and saxophonist Vernon James.

As for “The Last Holiday,” Scott-Heron, who has been writing poetry since his teens and novels since 1970, says the long-delayed book “should be finished by end of the month. … I’ve written far more than (the publisher) can use – over 500 pages – so the editing process will take a while.

“Stevie is not the kind of person to pat himself on the back,” adds Scott-Heron, noting that Wonder’s 1980 single “Happy Birthday” popularized the King holiday campaign, and through his efforts and 1981’s Rally for Peace Press Conference, 6 million signatures were collected to pressure Congress to pass the law.

President Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983. It was first observed in 1986. But it was not officially observed in all 50 states until 2000.

The long, sometimes bitter struggle over the holiday still reverberates. On April 4, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, said he made a “mistake” in 1983 when he voted against the bill that designated the third Monday of every January as a federal holiday in honor of King.

“They opposed it in Arizona on the basis of economics,” says Scott-Heron. “But Arizona changed its tune once the NFL said it wouldn’t bring the Super Bowl there … It was about the money. It always was and always will be about the money. Forget the bald eagle. The symbol of America should be the dollar sign.”

As for the current presidential race, Scott-Heron is non-committal, preferring to take a long view.

President Bush’s father, a former head of the CIA, “has been president since 1974, as soon as Nixon’s hand was caught in the cookie jar,” says Scott-Heron.

“Reagan’s policies were not his fault,” he continues. “The election of Ronald Reagan just showed that the country was losing its grip.”

President Clinton?

“He was just a governor from Arkansas.”

And the possibility that Barack Obama would be president?

“It would be great to have a good president, no matter what color he is,” says Scott-Heron. “I don’t know Obama as president. I know he’s a senator and people seem to like him. … We won’t know who Obama really is until he takes office, if they let him take office.”

Picture of the Day

April 29, 2008

NEW YORK CITY—The Bowery, 1967.

Miguel Zenon turns traditional Puerto Rican sounds into innovative jazz

April 28, 2008

Miguel Zenón feels his way to jazz Nirvana


Saxophonist Miguel Zenón has made his mark in jazz by translating the traditional Afro-Caribbean rhythms in his head into freer forms of expression. On his 2005 album, “Jíbaro” (Marsalis Music), he used the “feel” of traditional Puerto Rican music as a creative space to play a kind of jazz so innovative that he won Best New Artist in a JazzTimes poll. The New Yorker’s new album, “Awake,” (Marsalis Music) takes the concept even further.

“If you start with the basic rhythmic structure of bomba, but you don’t necessarily use the drums or play the rhythm explicitly, you’re composing with a bomba feel,” said Zenón, whose quartet will be playing at the Jazz Standard (212-576-2232) Tuesday and Wednesday. “A lot of the stuff we did on this record is coming out of an Afro-Cuban feel, a Puerto Rican feel, or even a flamenco feel.”

Listening carefully to “Ulysses in Slow Motion,” inspired by the multilayered narrative technique of the James Joyce novel, you might be able to pick out the Puerto Rican rhythm bomba sicá. “Third Dimension” has the feel of a 12/8 Afro-Cuban rhythm, and “Camarón,” dedicated to flamenco legend Camarón de la Isla, takes off into an unexplored galaxy of rhythmic cycles.

“‘Camarón’ has that Arab and African thing going on,” said Zenón, who came to the U.S. from his native Puerto Rico to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston. “You can hear all the Spanish music that came with the colonization of Latin America in rumba and jíbaro music.” Another song has a more arbitrary inspiration. One day as Zenón was channel surfing, he was entranced by a Catholic Mass and adapted a Gregorian chant as the repetitive motif for “Santo.”

“Awakening Prelude” and “Awakening Interlude” represent the state of mind Zenón was in as he tried to find direction as a budding young jazz star. He used a string quartet to “color” the proceedings, which culminate in a free-jazz explosion inspired by Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane’s experimental phases.

From time to time, he asked longtime collaborator Luis Perdomo to switch from piano to Fender Rhodes, giving some of the tunes an electric fusion sound. Zenón feels a great camaraderie with his quartet, made up of Perdomo, Hans Glawischnig on bass and Henry Cole on drums.

“Hans and I played with David Sánchez’s band,” Zenón said, “and then with Luis we played in [the late] Ray Barretto’s band.”

Zenón credits Sánchez and Boston-based pianist Danilo Pérez as “shining examples of Latino musicians who were making it in the jazz world.” Barretto was also an important mentor, since Zenón had grown up listening to his salsa records and was stunned by the master percussionist’s encyclopedic knowledge of mainstream jazz.

But like Barretto, Zenón had roots in playing dance music. “In Puerto Rico I played in all kinds of bands that played salsa and merengue,” Zenón revealed. “That’s how I saved the money to come to the U.S. We used to play El Gran Combo tunes. Half the band was my friends – we were around 15 – and the other half was my friend’s father and his friends from the hospital where he worked. They were all, like, 50,” he chuckled.

Cartoon of the Day

April 28, 2008

Voice of the Day

April 28, 2008

“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”

– Emma Goldman

A flood of Katrina songs

April 28, 2008

A Flood of Emotion in a Song

IN the nearly three years since the levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, you haven’t had to wait very long at a Louisiana festival or nightclub before a singer croons, “What has happened down here is the winds have changed.” That’s the opening line of “Louisiana 1927,” which has become the state’s unofficial anthem in the wake of the 2005 tragedy.

Written by Randy Newman in the mid-1970s about a flood that covered a good deal of Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana half a century earlier, the song climaxes with its plaintive, singalong chorus, “Loo-eez-ee-ann-a, they’re tryin’ to wash us away.”

The song’s lament of being battered once by nature and again by a callous government had resonated with flood-ravaged audiences from New Orleans to Lake Charles well before 2005. Then Katrina came, and Mr. Newman seemed downright clairvoyant.

“For a long time after Katrina,” said Marcia Ball, a Louisiana-born blues singer, “there just wasn’t a dry eye in the house when I did that song.” While Katrina inspired many songs, she said, this one became the anthem because it has “one of those simple, irresistible Randy Newman melodies and lyrics that were so real. In truth, so many people did get washed away.”

“Louisiana 1927” is more than an anthem, however; it’s also a modern-day folk song that gains new lyrics as singers adapt it to new circumstances.

Ms. Ball tweaked the lyrics for her 1997 version, which she will perform on Saturday at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Before the weekend is done, other interpretations of the song should also be sung by the Wild Magnolias, John Boutté and, in their first Jazzfest appearance since Katrina, the Neville Brothers. And on Thursday afternoon Mr. Newman himself will return to the festival to sing his original words.

“It’s a New Orleans tradition that you can take any music and mess with it,” said Bruce Boyd Raeburn, the curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University. The key lyric is “They’re tryin’ to wash us away,” he said, because it is applicable to most periods of New Orleans history. “It captures that feeling that you’re trying to cling on to your culture, to your life, in the face of this wave of indifference, of racism, of malevolence and of water itself.”

Mr. Newman, 64, may be closely associated with his hometown, Los Angeles (he wrote the tongue-in-cheek tribute, “I Love L.A.”), but he has roots in Louisiana. His mother grew up in New Orleans, and he lived there over several summers and while his father was in the Army during World War II.

“There were these horrendous things — those signs with ‘Colored’ on one side and ‘White’ on the other,” he said in a recent phone interview. “But I always loved the pop music. I was so influenced by Fats Domino that it’s still hard for me to write a song that’s not a New Orleans shuffle.”

His fascination with Louisiana led him to books about the state’s legendary governor Huey Long, known as the Kingfish, who used the 1927 flood to stoke rural resentment against the big-city bosses and to win his first term the next year.

As John M. Barry wrote in “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America” (1997), the most powerful businessmen in New Orleans illegally dynamited levees to make sure the city stayed dry.

Mr. Newman’s research led to “Louisiana 1927″ (as well as “Kingfish”) on his 1975 album, “Good Old Boys” (Reprise). He delivered the story with an understated detachment, as if he were a hard-bitten newspaperman or a fatalistic farmer.

Aaron Neville, who was born and raised in New Orleans, heard about the song from his frequent duet partner Linda Ronstadt, a longtime friend of Mr. Newman’s. He recorded the tune for his 1991 album, “Warm Your Heart” (A&M), and his approach was anything but understated.

Backed by an orchestra and a gospel choir, he sang with all the drama of someone standing in water up to his thighs. Because he has a much better vocal instrument than Mr. Newman, Mr. Neville could exploit the melodic rise of “Louisiana, Louisiana” in the chorus and the melodic collapse of “They’re tryin’ to wash us away.”

And because he was closely identified with New Orleans in a way that Mr. Newman never was, he gave that chorus a first-person authenticity.

“When I watched the Katrina coverage on CNN,” he said, “I’d see people on the roofs that I knew. I said: ‘Damn, when’s the cavalry coming? The cavalry comes every time, why not now?’

‘When I used to sing that song, it was about something that happened a long time ago. Now when I sing it, it’s about something that happened to me and my family, so it’s a lot more real.”

He predicts that “Louisiana 1927” will be the emotional peak of the Neville Brothers’ festival-closing set on May 4.

Gradually Mr. Neville’s version of the song became a standard among the black residents of New Orleans. In 1996 Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias recorded “Louisiana 1927” for their album “1313 Hoodoo Street.”

The Wild Magnolias, who perform May 4 at Jazzfest, are Mardi Gras Indians, that New Orleans tradition of African-Americans who dress in elaborate costumes of feathers and beads. Mr. Dollis changed the lyrics to “River had busted clear down the canal line, six feet of water on the streets of the Lower Nine.”

That’s a reference to the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood that was famously demolished in Katrina but which also suffered serious flooding from Hurricane Betsy in 1965. Mr. Dollis had lived through Betsy, and he asked his band’s manager, Glenn Gaines, help him write a new version about that flood.

They even added a verse contrasting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with Vic Schiro, the city’s segregationist mayor at the time. “Bo started describing to me how the water came through like a freight train, how in a matter of minutes people lost what they’d worked for their whole lives,” Mr. Gaines said. “Of course, it was the poor black folks who suffered the most. That’s why we put Martin Luther King in there.”

The Wild Magnolias’ recording was the first hint that “Louisiana 1927” was becoming a folk song. And since Katrina the song has been recorded by Willie Nelson, the British folk singer Martin Simpson, the zydeco accordionist Terrance Simien, the R&B singer Howard Tate and the jam band the String
Cheese Incident.

Mr. Newman himself re-recorded the song with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra for the post-Katrina benefit album “Our New Orleans 2005″ (Nonesuch).

But the song’s most dramatic recasting was by Mr. Boutté during his memorable set at Jazzfest in 2006. Backed by horns and a rhythm section and wearing a straw hat with the front brim turned up, he sang Mr. Newman’s lyrics straight through once, then changed things around.

The line “Clouds roll in from the north” became “Clouds rolled in from the Gulf.” The line “President Coolidge come down in a railroad train/with a little fat man with a notepad in his hand” became “President Bush flew over in an aeroplane/with about 12 fat men with double martinis in their hands.”

“The city had been empty, but the whole world would be coming for Jazzfest,” Mr. Boutté recalled. “We’d have a soapbox to talk about our loss and about the unconcern others had for us. But I had to find the right song.”

His friend Paul Sanchez of the rock band Cowboy Mouth suggested “Louisiana 1927.” As Mr. Boutté rehearsed it, he unconsciously changed “crackers” to “Creoles” and “what the river has done” to “what the levee has done.” When they realized what was going on, the two men decided to rewrite the song.

Mr. Boutté saved it for last at his Jazzfest set, and when he started dropping local references into the lyrics, older women rose from their plastic folding chairs, waving their hands over their heads and egging him on as if they were in church.

“First the women started crying,” recalled Mr. Boutté, who performs at Jazzfest on Friday. “Then the men started crying. Then the children started crying because their parents were crying. Then I started crying. I can’t sing that song too often because it takes too much out of me. It reminds me of the needless loss — and the loss never seems to end.”