Daily Blog


22 October 2013

“Lester sings in his horn; you listen to him and can almost hear the words” ~Billie Holiday


The hippest dude that ever lived

A true artist, maybe one of the truest we have ever had, Lester Young was creative in dress, in the way he played, and even in the way he spoke.

Reading about Prez I have found many references to his creative use of language, Lesterese. Like his iconic porkpie hat, wearing sunglasses in a dark night club, and holding his sax at a peculiar angle, his language was as hip and singular as his music.

Some of the terms he is said to have coined and/or popularized include:

  • cool - for something fashionable, “That is a cool look.”
  • bread – for money, ”How does the bread smell?” when asking how much a gig was going to pay.
  • draft – for hostility/ racism
  • vanilla - to play it straight, not to try and get fancy.

Some eccentric terms he used:

  • to have eyes – To desire or asipre to, “I had eyes for playing with Basie.”
  • bruise – to have a bad show or to have no crowd come to see a performance.
  • lady – He called everyone male or female, lady, because, as Pres would say, “anyone with music in their heart is a lady.”
  • George Washington – was according to Oscar Peterson, Young’s term for the bridge of a tune. He would say something like, “Lady Pete, may I have my George Washington again?”
  • people - his saxophone keys, as in “My people were really smooth tonight”
  • wayback – a long forgotten girl friend
  • bomber - a drummer who thumped too hard
  • Ivey-Divey - trademark turn of phrase, ranging in meaning from “good!” to “que sera sera…”

Seems to me the world needs all the Lester Young coolness it can get right now.

Personally, I can’t play the sax, and I am not sure I could pull off the porkpie hat, but I do know a bit about language. So I have made a vow to import a bit of Prez’s language into my own.

So if you see me and happen to ask, “How you doin’, Mark?” You can expect me to reply, “Ivey-Divey.” Dig?



Music Monday: Lester Young

21 October 2013

To play in a rhythm section with Lester Young had to be one of the most joyful experiences for any member of that fortunate section because, when he decided to really get into the tune, he would start playing some of those beautiful, long marvelous-shaped lines that would stretch from one part of the tune to the other. And, when he played like this, there was no way possible for you to escape playing well for him.
Lester, in short, had this remarkable ability to transmit beauty from within himself to the rhythm section. Whenever we played up tunes, he’d step to the microphone, raise the horn to that peculiar angle at which he always held it, and play some lines that were so relaxed that, even at a swift tempo, the rhythm section would relax.  ~ Oscar Peterson




Here is a Lester Young video where you get to hear him speak a bit: ”a little ticky boom-one stick,ya dig.”

What could be better on a cool, wet Monday morning?



Vinyl passion

17 October 2013

A couple of years ago our eldest “discovered” music on vinyl. It was fun to join her search for albums at garage sales, thrift stores, and used record stores. There is something magical about album covers and music heard on the point of a needle

After fits and starts, I have a working system now for Sue and I to listen to vinyl again at home. The final piece was the installation of some used Bose speakers this past weekend. A great upgrade from the previous Sony ones. We are listening in style.

Here are some covers for a few albums we have been listening to this week:





Sunday Morning









Somethin Else







Laughin’ to keep from cryin’

16 October 2013

A man can only be a stylist if he makes up his mind not to copy anybody. Originality is the thing. You can have tone and technique and a lot of other things but without originality you ain’t really nowhere. Gotta be original.  ~ Lester Young


Lester Young - Laughin' to Keep from Cryin'

My love affair with the Prez and his music continues, a ray of light in my long “blue” night. That is the power of art, of poetry and music in particular. They speak to us emotionally. And no musician I have heard does it better than Lester Young.

Here is an old article by Jamie Katz about how the centennial of Lester Young’s birth (in 2009) was sadly going largely un-noticed.



Lester Young Turns 100
Jamie Katz
Smithsonian.com, August 25, 2009

Though Lester Young was revered in his time as an artist of the highest rank, the 100th anniversary of his birth has not sparked much in the way of commemoration. No postage stamp; no parade in Woodville, Mississippi, where he was born on August 27, 1909; no statues in New Orleans, Kansas City or New York City —all places with a claim on the spellbinding Swing Era saxophonist known as Prez.

A shining exception is Columbia University’s WKCR radio, where, for the past 40 years, jazz historian Phil Schaap has led marathon birthday tributes to Young, revisiting his landmark recordings from the 1930s and ’40s with Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and other leading lights, as well as Young’s in-and-out performances in the troubled years before his death in 1959. Like Louis Armstrong before him, Prez was a pivotal figure; his lyrical, flowing style changed the terms of jazz improvisation and deeply influenced such musicians as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Schaap’s devotion has a personal element, too: Young; his wife, Mary, and their kids were friends and neighbors of the Schaap family in Queens, New York, in the late ’50s. Though he was in grade school at the time, Schaap remembers Young’s sweet voice and fun-loving presence, as well as moments of conversation among the grown-ups, such as the time his father, Walter, stood with Young in the front doorway discussing racial equality, and the jazzman remarked, “It never goes in the back door.”

Like many of Young’s phrases—musical and verbal—the comment was both deft and shrouded. He was known for speaking a private language, some of which has entered the American lexicon. The expression “that’s cool” was probably coined by him, as were “bread” (for money), “You dig?” and such colorful sayings as “I feel a draft”—code for prejudice and hostility in the air. He also wore sunglasses in nightclubs, sported a crushed black porkpie hat and tilted his saxophone at a high angle “like a canoeist about to plunge his paddle into the water,” as the New Yorker‘s Whitney Balliett put it. Rolling Stone later pronounced Prez “quite likely the hippest dude that ever lived.”

Young’s impact on the language of music was even greater. Before tenorman Coleman Hawkins led the emergence of the saxophone as a serious instrument in the 1920s, most sax players “habitually produced either a kind of rubbery belch or a low, mooing noise,” wrote Young biographer Dave Gelly. Young came along right behind Hawkins, and electrified the jazz world with his dexterity and imagination.

“He redefined the instrument,” says the tenor saxophonist and jazz scholar Loren Schoenberg, who is also executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (a Smithsonian affiliate). His most fundamental change involved a subtle relaxation of jazz phrasing and rhythm. “A lot of lesser players depend on the friction of a spiky rhythm to make it seem as if it’s ‘hot,’ ” Schoenberg says. “Young found a way to play that had a more even rhythm, and yet he swung like crazy. This called for great ingenuity and great genius.”

Young mastered the art of improvising beautiful melodies, which he played with a velvety tone and an effortless, floating quality. Yet like a great dancer, he never lost sight of the beat. A bluesman at heart, he could swoop and moan and play with edge, but more typically, the sensation was one of “pulsating ease,” as critic Nat Hentoff once described it. At slower tempos, he radiated a more wistful, bruised spirit. “In all of Lester Young’s finest solos,” Albert Murray writes in his classic study, Stomping the Blues, “there are overtones of unsentimental sadness that suggest he was never unmindful of human vulnerability.”

Young was raised in and around New Orleans in a musical family that performed in minstrel shows and carnivals. His father, Willis Handy Young, was an accomplished music educator; he doted on Lester but also often belt-whipped the boy, prompting him to run away 10 or 12 times, according to his younger brother Lee. The family moved to Minneapolis in 1919 and performed across the American heartland. At a stop in Harlan, Kentucky, the Youngs came close to being lynched; apparently, the audience had been expecting a white band. In 1927, at age 18, Lester ran away for good rather than face the indignities of a planned tour of Texas and the Deep South. He latched on with territory bands (dance bands that would travel a given region) such as Walter Page’s Blue Devils, several of whose stars—including bassist Page, singer Jimmy Rushing, drummer Jo Jones and pianist Count Basie—would later form the nucleus of Basie’s popular, ultra-swinging orchestra. The novelist and jazz writer Ralph Ellison remembered hearing Young jamming in an Oklahoma City shoeshine parlor with members of the Blue Devils as early as 1929, “his head thrown back, his horn even then outthrust.”

Young’s prowess was well known by 1934, when he first joined the Basie band in Kansas City; by the time he left, in 1940, he had established himself as one of the top stars in jazz. Most of Young’s greatest records date from this period and the early ’40s, when he teamed up with Holiday, Goodman, Charlie Christian, Nat King Cole and a number of excellent small groups composed mainly of Basie-ites. Young later said that his favorite solo from the Basie years came on a sprightly tune called Taxi War Dance. “The entire solo is 32 bars long; it takes exactly 35 seconds,” writes Gelly, “and it’s a masterpiece to stand alongside Armstrong’s West End Blues and Parker’s Ko-Ko. No one else could have done it because no else’s mind worked that way.”

By all accounts, Young was a painfully shy and sensitive loner who hated conflict of any kind. He also had a self-destructive streak and blithely ignored his health. “Prez always had a bottle of liquor in his pocket,” said pianist Jimmy Rowles.

Young was sliding into a long decline by his early 30s, probably accelerated by his hellish Army experience. He was court-martialed in early 1945 for marijuana possession, then confined for nearly a year in disciplinary barracks, an experience he called “one mad nightmare.” He bounced back to record some of his most successful records and tour with the all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic bands, but he was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown in 1955. Soon after returning from an engagement in Paris, Young died in the Alvin Hotel in Manhattan on March 15, 1959, just months before his old friend and musical soulmate Billie Holiday.

He remains a powerful influence on the music. Wayne Shorter, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano and Mark Turner—an elite list of contemporary saxophonists—have all professed deep admiration for Young, much as their predecessors did.

The late pianist John Lewis played in Young’s band in the early ’50s at about the time Lewis was forming the Modern Jazz Quartet. A kindred spirit, he said he regarded Young as “a living, walking poet” whose wounds in life had never healed. “Lester is an extremely gentle, kind, considerate person,” he told Hentoff in 1956 or ’57. “He’s always concerned about the underdog. He always wants to help somebody. The way he seems to see being is: ‘Here we are. Let’s have a nice time.’ “




Washing the dust away

10 October 2013

 The second week of October has brought warm days again to the North Country. Our windows are open again at night and we wake in the dark mornings listening to the sound of the wind playing in the changing leaves. October as it was meant to be.

It was a summer of biking and jazz and experimental writing… and watching my youngest go. The end of one season of life and the beginning of another. It has been a difficult change for me. Much more difficult than I even expected.

Jazz is making the transition easier.

In addition to hours of listening to Lester Young, I have been reading a number of books about Jazz as well, including:

  • Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz
  • Ted Gioia’s Birth and Death of Cool
  • Dave Gelly’s excellent biography of Lester Young (Being Pres)
  • Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Essays
  • Milt Hinton’s wonderful coffee table book, Bass Line

Jazz, like poetry, takes time. The deeper you go the more your appreciation grows.

What I am finding I admire most about Jazz is the fearless nature of the jazz artist in the face of finitude. Painters and sculptors work to get a work of art “set in stone.” Writers work and re-work to get each word in place exactly as they want, like a word sculpture. A poet may revisit a poem again and again, but it is always with the idea of creating something as permanent as stone.

Not so in Jazz. Listening to albums of Lester Young, for example, you can hear two studio performances of the same song done back-to-back and hear that very little is the same. It is the art of a single, transitory moment. It is in that way more like life itself. The emotion of a living soul expressed in the moment, beautifully. To quote Yeats: “whatever flames upon the night, Man’s own resinous heart has fed.”

It will soon be time to take the next steps into the next season of my life. I have been on a holding pattern long enough. I must start forward again. I only hope that I can take the fearless spirit of Lester Young and Jazz with me.







Poetry Review: “October” by Robert Frost

1 October 2013

rfcoverEach year, October seems to arrive much sooner than we would like. For those of us in the North Country, October means the end: of summery days, of days of green, of sleeping with our windows open. Dry warm days and changing colors remind us that winter is just around the corner. Beauty and death as always go hand in hand.

Here is a poem about October by Robert Frost.




O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.

These are the lines of someone well acquainted with the bitter-sweet beauty of October in the north.

Pardon the un-intentional pun, but fall and winter belong to Frost. He is the poet of northern climes. So much a part of the American language that we cannot look at birches or snowy evenings or October without soon thinking of his lines. That is the true power of art and poetry.




On Lester Young and poetic imagination

30 September 2013
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 Lester Young, photo by Herb Snitzer

Lester Young, photo by Herb Snitzer

Prose writers are disciplined. Poets not nearly so. And so the long hiatus here at MontanaWriter.

I pass time working on the blog that is to replace this one, and pushing lines of verse around on metaphorical pages. In short, I have been waiting for inspiration.

A restless reader by nature, I have been even more restless these day than I am used to. Dozens and dozens of new books are started but soon abandoned. The only book I have managed to start and finish these past few months is a biography of jazz saxophonist Lester Young. A good one that I will review soon.

It has been a season of re-reading:  Yeats and Whitman and Shelley and Keats and Hopkins and Seamus Heaney and Hemingway.

Laying out those writers on paper now, it is clear I am searching the familiar-past for a way forward: returning to my literary roots.

It has also been a season of jazz and blues. At work I listen to Lester Young and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Lester Young has become a bit of an obsession of mine (and I have had many). I have long loved Coltrane and Stan Getz but knew Young only by reputation. I knew he was influential, but did not know why.

Chancing upon an article somewhere last spring, I came across the fact that Young had lived in Minneapolis for a time, and long considered the Twin Cities a safe home of sorts.

That jazz had roots outside of New Orleans and Chicago and New York was an unexpected surprise. That my adopted home for 25 years was one of those places, made me want to know more.

It has been said that the saxophone of all musical instruments comes closest to “mimicking” the human voice. Lester Young called playing, “telling stories.” Jazz, like poetry, is born in the emotion of a moment. It is the expression of an inexpressible feeling.

Listening to Lester Young, you know that he has a soul like Keats or Whitman. His “sound” is at once ethereal and all too human.

And so another summer has passed. This one spent with Lester Young and a few old poetic friends. What the future hold for blogging and writing is unclear. But I know I do not go empty handed. I carry with me the gift of giants.



On change and Swinburne

26 August 2013
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“Prairie Days” (photo by m.a.h. hinton)

For those keeping track, posts have been sparse this summer at MontanaWriter. It  has been a season of reassessment and reflection, of trying to prepare myself for inevitable life changes.

Yesterday we dropped our youngest off at college. Change has been thrust upon me.

I suspect my desire this summer to “shake things up” has been rooted in anticipation of this moment. Outward change needs a corresponding inner alteration after all, if we are going to keep moving forward.

Nothing in life, they say, is a constant but change. It is a truth we learn, and re-learn, over and over in our lives.

When we dropped my daughter Dylan off at school two years ago, I consoled myself with the fact that I still had two more years with Morgan. Those  two years have passed now even more quickly than I originally feared. Yesterday, the day I had been preparing myself for, has now come and gone. Like a thousand times a thousand generations of children, Morgan is beginning her own life. And I must now, like a thousand times a thousand generations of parents before me, begin the next stage of my life without her.

Change has been thrust upon me.

Some Lines from Swinburne

I have put my days and dreams out of mind,
      Days that are over, dreams that are done.
Though we seek life through, we shall surely find
      There is none of them clear to us now, not one.
But clear are these things; the grass and the sand,
Where, sure as the eyes reach, ever at hand,
With lips wide open and face burnt blind,
      The strong sea-daisies feast on the sun.


requiescat in pace Elmore Leonard

20 August 2013

In honor of Elmore Leonard’s passing, I am reposting something from February 2012 about Leonard. This was the fourth installment in the Western Writers Series at MontanaWriter. Other writers in the series can be found at Western Writers Series.

Elmore Leonard  is a household name for gritty novels with great dialog likeGet Shorty and Rum Punch. But his gritty style and his long writing career actually began in the 1950s with stories for western pulp magazines. It was not until the marketplace for westerns began to dry up in the early 1970s that Leonard made the switch to crime fiction for which he is now so famous.

What caused the marketplace for westerns to dry up has been greatly debated. Some have suggested that it was the ubiquity of bad western television-shows during the 1950s and 1960s that exhausted America’s interest in all things western. Some believe it was the 1960s and Vietnam that made the western mythos seem anachronistic and irrelevant, especially when the biggest star of the Western movie came to be synonymous with all things that were being rejected.

I suspect it is a combination of both combined with the rise of Louis L’Amour as a market force. The fact that L’Amour’s competent historical fiction came to represent the art-form of western fiction at every newsstand and bookstore ensured the end. Blase had won the day. The western was dead… at least for awhile. (Obviously, I believe in the resurrection of the dead.)

Westerns, as has been said before at MontanaWriter, fall along a continuum between mythic literature and historical fiction. Leonard shares much in common with is fellow Michigan writer, H.A. DeRosso. His West is not the historically accurate one. It is more the metaphorical/iconic one. That is why he is one of my favorite of all western writers… and to my mind the best..

Leonard honed his 10 famous rules for writing first by writing western short stories and then by writing 8 western novels, each of which would belong on any list of best western novels.

              Elmore Leonard’s 10 Tricks for Good Writing 

  1.  Never open a book with weather.
  2.  Avoid prologues.
  3.  Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
  4.  Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.
  5.  Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
  6.  Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
  7.  Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8.  Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9.  Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10.  Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.


Though Leonard has written that he kept a research notebook at his side as he began writing westerns so things would be accurate, his rules of writing indicate that accurate description was not his primary focus. There is none of the extraneous horse-talk and gun-talk that some historical-western writers feel compelled to throw-in just to show-off. He gets to the point of the story and sticks with it. And the point of a story is to tell a story. And he does it well… better than any western writer.

It is shame that Leonard felt he had stop writing westerns… a shame for the western art-form and for those of us who are readers. Think of all the great westerns that were never written.


Elmore Leonard Western Bibliography



On tweeting and writing and the post-modern “bons mot”

8 August 2013

Awhile back, after much initial resistance, I signed up for a Twitter account and began to tweet.

(photo by m.a.h. hinton)

(photo by m.a.h. hinton)

I stop for a minute now and look at that sentence. For the thousandth time I wonder at the way language changes. The way new words become so quickly commonplace in our life. The way new ideas and technologies become so essential and ordinary: google that, post that, tweet this,….

I still do not know what to make of Twitter. As a sports fan I love it for the quick bits of sports news I get from favorite columnists and sportswriters. As a lover of literature, I love the links from The Paris Review and Irish Literary Times to interesting articles and links. As neophyte handicapper, I like the tweets and links from the Daily Racing Form and Canterbury Park and real handicappers.

Those gifted with more clever wits, tweet funny lines and post-modern bons mots (pardon my French). My few attempts at that kind of humor have been… unsatisfying.

I like to tweet pictures and quotes, though. And to re-tweet interesting links. But as a writer, I still have not figured out how to use it myself.

I have spent part of the summer experimenting with 140 character poetry forms… Twitter Haiku. To be quite honest, it has become a bit of an obsession. I fill virtual pages with lines of this experimental verse. So far though, nothing has felt quite right.

I’ll keep tweeting though and trying. I guess I am stubborn that way.

In the meantime, here is an attempt at a Twitter poem picked at random. Enjoy!

(7 1 5)

prairie and sky balance


a bobolink’s wing




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