Jazz and Poetry

Posted March 22nd, 2013 at 4:29 pm (UTC+0)
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By Diaa Bekheet

F. Scott Fitzgerald named the 1920s “The Jazz Age,” and he was hardly the only writer to take inspiration from the music. Poets, in particular, have been drawn to jazz, looking to capture its sound and feel in their phrases.  Poets like Langston Hughes “incorporated the syncopated rhythms and repetitive phrases of blues and jazz music into their writing”, according the Jazz Poetry Anthology.

Here’s a mashup someone’s done of Langston Hughes reading his poem “Weary Blues” together with some mournful jazz and some vintage clips of Cab Calloway.

Robert Penn Warren's poem

Robert Penn Warren’s poem

Recently, I listened to an old cassette tape about some of the great American poets. Some poems were read with music in the background, and it was one of them —  “Fox-fire 1956” by Robert Penn Warren — that touched me most deeply.

It wasn’t just the words that brought tears to my eyes, it was the  brilliant mix of bass flute and guitar under Warren’s voice. Take a listen:


The guitar-flute improvisation also reminds me of the practice of mysticism and Sufism, traditions out of which the great Arab-American poet Gibran Khalil Gibran — also during the Jazz Age — wrote his poetic masterpiece “Give me the Flute, and Sing

Saxophonist Paul Winter, a musician known for mixing jazz with poetry, considers jazz-poetry as a kind of improvised conversation.  “I’ve always enjoyed making music with poetry, improvising in antiphonal response to the different verses, sometimes playing lightly in the background behind the poet,” he tells VOA. Jazz singer Kurt Elling says that part of the beauty of the experience of art is in its mystery – particularly when it comes to poetry and music.

Next month, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will hold a Jazz Poetry event as part of its annual Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM) and National Poetry Month, which also happens to be April.


SXSW—My ears are still ringing!

Posted March 20th, 2013 at 2:28 pm (UTC+0)
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By Katherine Cole

What a week it was in Austin! I didn’t keep track of all the shows I attended during SXSW 2013, but my unofficial tally is a hundred bands/singers heard between Tuesday March 12 and Sunday the 17th. Sounds like a lot, but it’s totally doable when you realize music starts when the daytime parties kick off each noon and ends with the last official showcase at 2am.

Highlights for me? St. Paul and The Broken Bones, a six piece Southern soul group from Birmingham, Alabama.  Totally unknown to me before last week, the buzz started on day two when one friend texted “COME SEE THIS BAND!!!” Just like that, in all caps. Within a few hours, I’d heard from two other “tastemakers” who had fallen under their spell. How much did they like this band? Enough to toss their carefully planned afternoon schedule and follow St. Paul and The Broken Bones to their next gig. Sounds crazy, but take a look at this video and tell me you wouldn’t be tempted to do the same thing!

By the end of the week, I’d heard from a couple dozen people who’d named “St. Paul and The Broken Bones as their SXSW “find.”

The Lone Bellow was it for others. They played 13 times during SXSW according to one article I read. Another put it at 17, and these photos chronicle at least that many.  No matter what the number, this Brooklyn, NY-based band was another one of the “it” groups of SXSW, and you can expect to be hearing (and seeing) a lot more about them in the future.  Their CD was produced by Charlie Peacock, who did the same for the Civil Wars.

When I’m at SXSW I try to spend most of my time on “discovery,” checking out new bands and trends. But I also set aside time to catch a showcase or two featuring bands I’ve seen before and loved, or singers that falls into that “kinda like, but am not convinced, even though everyone else likes them” category.  This year, I added a new category: someone I should see because “what the heck is he/she doing here?”  For 2013, that honor went to former child star Charlotte Church.

In this Wednesday, March 13, 2013 photo, singer Charlotte Church poses for a photo during the SXSW Music Festival, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision/AP Images, File)

You remember her … in the late ’90s Church leaped to stardom as a multi-million-selling pop-opera-singing teenager from Wales. She toured the world and was once spotted taking school exams in a room at the White House after singing for President George Bush’s inauguration.  Now 27 and the mother of two young children, Charlotte Church and her five man band showcased new songs before a small, but mesmerized, audience at a rooftop club (I squeezed in to that one), and also at several private events.




I have a ton of other SXSW finds and stories to share with you. Check back later this week for one with a very happy ending!

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Theodore Roosevelt, Frank Lloyd Wright …Bob Dylan?

Posted March 19th, 2013 at 7:38 pm (UTC+0)
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By Doug Levine

It’s another first for singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, who will become the first rock and roll artist inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Previously, Dylan was the first rock star to earn a nomination from the National Book Critics Circle for his memoir “Chronicles: Volume One,” and, in 2008, he became the first rocker to receive a Pulitzer Prize.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and he’s been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and National Medal of Arts.  Could a Nobel Peace Prize be far off?

Bob Dylan, Washington, DC 1963 (USIA)

Dylan, 71, will join an elite group of writers, artists, composers and architects to be members in the 105-year-old Academy. The roster ranges from literary giants Henry James and Carl Sandburg to painters Jasper Johns and John Singer Sargent.  Composers Duke Ellington and Charles Ives were members.  The Academy couldn’t decide whether to elect Dylan to the composer or music category, so they compromised and made him an Honorary Member.  The announcement was made on March 12.

A master storyteller, lyricist and performer like his own folk hero Woody Guthrie, Dylan was at the forefront of the folk revival in the early-’60s. The Academy’s Executive Director Virginia Dajani said the diversity of his work and his iconic place in American culture made him the perfect candidate. “Bob Dylan is a multi-talented artist whose work so thoroughly crosses several disciplines that it defies categorization,” explained Dajani.

A ceremony for newly-inducted members takes place in May at the Academy’s headquarters in New York City.  Meanwhile, enjoy Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone,” ranked #1 on Rolling Stones list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time:

AJ Croce

Posted March 15th, 2013 at 11:19 pm (UTC+0)

By Katherine Cole

Hello again from Austin. Day three of SXSW Music 2013 and I’m still running around like a crazy person. I’m getting over my disappointment at not winning the Prince ticket lottery, thanks to all the other great music at all other great music going on around town. (That’s not entirely true, but I’m trying to make myself feel better)

With hundreds of bands playing at any given moment, it’s impossible to keep get to each and every show that you’ve carefully marked in the schedule. Traffic (pedestrian and vehicular) woes add to the difficulty of trying to get from one venue to another in a timely manner. I’ve learned over the years that sometimes it’s best to just put down the list and follow your ears and eyes. Which led me to AJ Croce‘s showcase in a downtown church Wednesday night.

San Diego singer-songwriter AJ Croce performs at SXSW 2013. (photo by Katherine Cole)




I have to thank Steve Poltz (a regular visitor to the Roots studio) for the suggestion–he and AJ are longtime friends and have written many songs together. I trust his judgement (at least when it comes to music!), so when Steve told me I really needed to see AJ, I fought my way through the crowds and grabbed a seat in the church-hall-turned-concert-venue.




What a treat! AJ (on guitar and piano) and guitarist Michael Bizar treated us to a taste of  “Twelve Tales”, a new CD recorded with six different producers in six studios around the country. They include New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint (the bluesy “Rollin’On” ) and Nashville’s  81 year old dynamo Cowboy Jack Clement (“A Momentary Lapse of Judgement).

If you’re new to AJ and his music, his site will provide a good sampler to start with. A couple of facts for the newbies:  his father was the legendary singer-songwriter Jim Croce, who died in a plane crash when AJ was very young.  AJ was blinded not long after, but later regained sight in his left eye. He later faced another huge challenge: temporarily losing his voice due to overuse. regaining it through what’s described as ” rigorous retraining.

While did treat the crowd to a wonderful version of his father’s hit “Operator”, AJ’s originals are very compelling. “Coraline” is from the 2010 CD “Cage of Muses”–this is not the version we heard in Austin, but every bit as stellar.

Another highlight was when AJ asked longtime friend and collaborator, the aforementioned  Steve Poltz, to leave his seat in the audience and sing along on “Once Again,” a tune they co-wrote several years ago. This is just the little unexpected extra “something” that makes a SXSW showcase even more memorable.

OK–must run. Wish me luck in the drawing for a ticket to see Justin Timberlake Saturday night!

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Prince at SXSW; Dave Grohl’s Busy Week

Posted March 15th, 2013 at 4:29 pm (UTC+0)
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By Katherine Cole

All the rumors are true—-Prince is making his South By Southwest debut Saturday night!  The Purple One will be performing at what may end up as one of the most exclusive closing parties ever for the Austin, Texas event. He’ll be playing to a very intimate crowd of a few hundred contest winners. Electronics giant Samsung is funding the party, which will reportedly feature Prince and a 21-piece band.

Mashable was first with details of the secret show, which is open to 250 owners of the Samsung Galaxy phone and a small number of select SXSW badgeholders, all chosen by lottery.

I’d love to be able to tell you about it—but I didn’t win a seat!

The ticket lottery system is still not the norm for SXSW Music Festival shows, but we’re seeing more and more of the “select access” events each year. In 2012, tickets to a “secret” Bruce Sprinsteen concert were made available through a drawing open to  everyone with a Music badge (allowing access to all music conference activities), a Platinum badge (good for all Interactive/Film/Music events)  or a wristband (music conference shows only). And I was lucky enough to get a seat!

This year, more shows have been deemed “super special” and not everyone is eligible to enter the ticket lottery—only people who purchased Platinum or Music Badges can participate.  In addition to the Prince show, they are Depeche Mode, Green Day, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and the Sound City Players, featuring Dave Grohl, John Fogerty, Stevie Nicks and more.

No love for me here, either. I’m a big loser in the ticket lottery this year.

This is proving to be a busy SXSW week for Dave Grohl.  Wednesday, he screened his well received new documentary film “Sound City: Real to Real.” The film tells  story of the Van Nuys Studio City recording outfit that’s laid down tracks for  artists including Johnny Cash, Nine Inch Nails,  Neil Young,  and Nirvana, the band that made Grohl a household name.

Thursday, the musician delivered the festival’s keynote address, giving a speech that encouraged young artists to protect their creative visions–and follow their dreams. “There is no right or wrong – there is only your voice,” Grohl told the overflowing room. “Your voice singing through a laptop, your voice echoing from a street corner, a cello, a turntable, a guitar, serrato, a studer, It doesn’t matter. What matters most is that it’s YOUR VOICE. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it.”


Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Quincy And Michael

Posted March 14th, 2013 at 6:57 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald

Quincy Jones celebrated his 80th birthday on March 14th. Over the course of his seven-decade career, Quincy Delight Jones, Jr. has done it all: performer, composer, arranger, producer, businessman – if you want an idea of the scope of his career, this is a good place to begin.

His achievements are far too wide-ranging for one blog entry, so I’ve chosen to focus on one extraordinary period: the years in which he worked with Michael Jackson. The partnership formed in 1977, when they worked together on the big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical “The Wiz.” Michael played the scarecrow, while Quincy served as musical supervisor and music producer. During production, Michael asked Quincy to recommend some producers for his upcoming solo album. Impressed by the young star’s work ethic, Quincy offered to do the job himself.

The result was “Off The Wall.” The 1979 album sold more than 20 million copies and eventually entered the Grammy Hall of Fame. Yet even bigger things were around the corner for Jones and Jackson.



On November 30, 1982, “Thriller” hit the world record market like a thunderbolt. Michael and Quincy’s second collaboration remains the best-selling album of all time, moving somewhere between 51 and 65 million copies – estimates vary widely. Although “Thriller” remains the high-water mark of their collaboration, Michael and Quincy were initially unhappy with the results. They repeatedly remixed each of the nine songs, and Michael spent much of this period fretting over his artistic and personal life.

The pair next collaborated on 1987’s  “Bad.” Although it sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, it marked the last time Quincy Jones worked in the studio with Michael Jackson. By this time, the singer had become a phenomenon unto himself, worshiped by millions while plagued by inner demons. Quincy maintained his own frenetic work schedule and, while the pair occasionally spoke of reuniting, nothing came of it. On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson’s death closed the door on a remarkable artistic partnership. Quincy subsequently appeared on U-S television, speaking candidly about the superstar’s battle with himself:



As he turns 80, Quincy Jones remains a vital, active presence. Next month, he will enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, winner of the Ahmet Ertegun Award for Lifetime Achievement. His accomplishments are legion, yet every time I listen to the crystalline production and dynamic arrangements of their three albums, I can’t help wishing that Quincy and Michael had collaborated just one more time.


Hello from Austin and the craziness that is SXSW!

Posted March 13th, 2013 at 4:22 pm (UTC+0)

Greetings from Austin, Texas. I’m here with thousands of my closest friends to attend the annual South By Southwest music conference. This is year 27 for the event and it’s bigger than ever! I’ve learned that the easiest way to manage the city during SXSW is on foot. Forget about driving in downtown Austin during the event, there are just too many closed roads and too many people darting about to navigate safely.

Watch your step! Crowds fill the streets during SXSW in Austin, Texas. (photo by Katherine Cole)

SXSW Music now runs for five days (one day longer than past years) and when it’s over, 2000 bands (give or take a few dozen) will have performed in hopes of attracting more attention from labels, agents, journalists and others in the music industry.

While some of the showcase acts this year are household names (I’m looking at you Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Depeche Mode and (maybe) Prince), many of the performers here are still in the (very) early stages of their careers. For them, SXSW isn’t just the chance to do one showcase set before industry tastemakers, it’s a marathon of appearances. SXSW days are filled with music filled parties that piggyback on the official events and give the truly dedicated a chance to perform three or four shows in a day.


VOA’s Greg Flakus interviews William Harries Graham during SXSW 2013. (photo by Katherine Cole

Last night, I caught the solo debut of someone I believe we’ll be seeing here for many SXSW’s to come: 13 year old William Harries Graham, a singer-songwriter-guitarist who also plays in a band called The Seaside Swifts. He’s the son of Jon Dee Graham, a true Austin singing, songwriting and guitar-playing legend.

William and Jon Dee took to the stage as part of a great “fathers and sons” night at Austin’s famed Saxon Pub. It didn’t matter that the club was a couple of miles from the heart of the SXSW action, it was packed with folks wanting to hear if, in the case of the Graham family,  “the apple fell far from the tree.”  You’ll be able to see for yourself in just a few days—VOA’s Greg Flakus was on hand to capture the set for a story on William’s SXSW debut. I’ll be posting the video here as soon as it’s produced.

Also on that bill last night was another second generation Austin singer-songwriter, Colin Gilmore, up on stage with his father, Jimmie Dale. It was a treat to see the pair perform together–and strengthened my resolve to catch Colin’s solo showcase tonight at midnight. We had a few seconds to catch up after the set and Colin told me he’s been writing a lot of new songs and is close to finishing his next CD. If you haven’t heard him yet, here’s your chance!


Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Will They Ever Be Sophomores?

Posted March 11th, 2013 at 2:35 pm (UTC+0)
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By Doug Levine

The Four Freshmen are back.  Actually, the  vocal group that began on a small college campus 65 years ago never really went away.

It was all the way back in 1948 that brothers Ross and Don Barbour, freshmen at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, started the group with Marvin Pruitt and Hal Kratzsch.  They called themselves Hal’s Harmonizers and then The Toppers, before settling on The Four Freshmen.  The fifties just wouldn’t be the same without the Four Freshmen staples “Day By Day,” “It’s A Blue World” and “Mood Indigo.” The Four Freshmen then:

There were the inevitable group changes along the way, but as new members came and went, The Four Freshmen stayed true to their four-part harmony roots.  The last original member Bob Flanigan retired in 1992.  Now the group is made up of Bob Ferriera, Curtis Calderon (trumpet), Brian Eichenberger (guitar) and Vince Johnson (bass), referred to as “Group 22.” Here are the Four Freshmen today:

Bob Ferriera, who has played drums along with singing in the group for over 20 years, says the quartet rose not only on the strength of their vocal harmonies but also on their musical accompaniment:

“They’d sometimes do two shows in a day, so they would just throw all of their instruments in a car and run from show to show – it was kind of hard to hire out musicians to do all these shows when you’re young and you’re broke and in college – and they were all playing instruments anyway so they figured ‘let’s just do it.’”

Bob says they do their best to keep the Four Freshmen repertoire intact, even though it means tackling music from a different era:

“I think our approach, the four of us, even though we were raised in a different time with different styles of music being our initial influences, we know and understand that the Four Freshmen sound is best when it is applied to the Great American Songbook.”

Bob, Brian, Curtis and Vince will be on tour all year, including a stop at the 26th Annual International Four Freshmen Society Convention in Fort Wayne, Indiana.  From September 5 to September 7, members from previous groups and fans from around the world will celebrate The Four Freshmen’s 65th anniversary, as well as the release of their new CD, “Love Songs.”

The Four Freshmen release “Love Songs”

When Music Meets Politics — Part 3

Posted March 8th, 2013 at 3:29 pm (UTC+0)
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Just the other day Katherine Cole told us about the squabble in Massachusetts over naming an official state rock song. She noted that Massachusetts already has a state song and an official state polka.

Now, as the Wall Street Journal reports,  the state next door, Connecticut, is scuffling over whether to have an official polka of its own.

“Connecticut has an official state insect, a fossil and even a tartan. Why not a state polka song?

That is the question radio host Peter Danielczuk, known as the Connecticut Prince of Polka, is asking state lawmakers. He is pushing to get “Ballroom Polka,” written by Connecticut polka legend Ray Henry, adopted as the official state polka…

If Mr. Danielczuk’s campaign prevails, Connecticut would become at least the third U.S. state to bestow official recognition on polka. Neighboring Massachusetts named “Say Hello to Someone in Massachusetts” as its state polka in 1998, and Wisconsin designated polka the official state dance in 1993.

“Massachusetts has one, why doesn’t Connecticut?” says Mr. Danielczuk, 61 years old, who has hosted polka radio shows in Connecticut for more than 40 years.”


If you’re wondering what all the fuss is about, here’s Ray Henry playing accordion with his band at a long-ago “Polkabration” party in Connecticut.


Alvin Lee, 1944 – 2013

Posted March 7th, 2013 at 6:57 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald

Last week,  I wrote about “seizing the day” when it came to viewing and appreciating artists, especially those of advancing ages. We never know what tomorrow may bring, and today we mourn the passing of a great musician.

On March 6th, guitarist Alvin Lee died from complications following what was reportedly a routine surgical procedure. He was 68. Born in Nottingham, England, Alvin was of the generation which produced many of our most legendary blues-rock musicians. In 1966, he formed the group Ten Years After, and in 1969 he stepped onto the world stage. The band played at the Newport Jazz Festival at a time when it was just beginning to accept rock acts. Then, in August of that year, Alvin Lee got his big break: Ten Years After performed at the Woodstock Festival, and his fleet-fingered guitar work on “I’m Going Home” made him a star. It’s still a bravura performance today, 43 years later.



While this performance catapulted Lee to the status of guitar hero, it also proved limiting. In a 1975 interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, Alvin complained about how audiences now demanded he trot out “I’m Going Home” at every opportunity, and complained that the fun had largely gone out of performing.

Ten Years After enjoyed a few more hits before disbanding in 1974. The group got back together in 1983, but by that time, their brand of music was no longer in vogue.  I regret to say I lost track of them, but a look at an early 21st Century performance reveals Alvin retained his fire and technique.




Alvin Lee released his latest album “Still On The Road To Freedom” last August.

Do you have any fond memories of Alvin Lee and Ten Years After?




VOA’s music bloggers bring you info about all kinds of music. Katherine Cole will keep you up-to-date on the world of Bluegrass and Americana music while Ray McDonald rocks the Pop charts and artists. Diaa Bekheet  jams with you on Jazz.  Visit us often. Your comments are welcome.



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