Sunday, November 23, 2014

Eulogy for a Feathered Friend

We’ve come to that time of year when we pause to say “Thanks for the blessings we have received.” Unfortunately there’s a large segment of the animal kingdom that offers no thanks, only trembling fear and mindless flight.

Yes, Thanksgiving is upon us. As an integral part of the celebration, millions of turkeys will lay their necks on the block for us, hoping for a painless departure and eventual placement on a large platter surrounded by bowls of dressing, yams, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie, with a circle of hungry humans seated at the ready, teeth bared, knives and forks in hand. 

I know of no other nation that decimates such a large segment of its animal population to feed their citizenry. How this hapless bird became the centerpiece for this well-intentioned celebration baffles me. Ben Franklin believed the turkey should be the national bird instead of the eagle because there were so many turkeys in America. Somehow the gobbler ended up in the oven and the eagle ascended to the top of flagpoles.
It’s as though the eagle lobby was better organized than that of the poor turkeys. Given the recent state of affairs in Washington, the turkey would have been more appropriate. Be that as it may, the holiday gathered momentum under President Lincoln, who declared it a National Holiday in 1863. You’d think, with all he had to attend to, like the Civil War and Secession and Slavery, he would’ve had more important things to do. FDR got into the act in 1939 when he moved the holiday up a week. Of course it met with Republican opposition, headed up by Alf Landon. (I can’t believe our nation would’ve ever elected a man named Alf to be president). Europe was being overrun by the Germans, Britain was in deadly peril, but Americans now had more time for Christmas shopping. 

Here comes the really ugly part of this history lesson. 
“Parental guidance advised. Some scenes may be too graphic for young minds, or bird lovers.” According to the National Turkey Federation (I’m not kidding; Google it), 200,000,000 turkeys were eaten in the U.S. last year. Two hundred million! That’s bigger than the combined populations of Paraguay, Serbia, Thailand, Argentina and, yes, Turkey. Those poor birds waddled to their death much as soldiers did in the Civil War and The Great War. Only this onslaught occurs every year, regular as clockwork and the tides. More from the NTF: 46 million are eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas, 19 million at Easter. Good thing the Jews, Muslims, and atheists don’t have a bird-centered holiday.

The Turducken
I’m not suggesting you have a New York Strip on Thanksgiving, or even that amalgam of birds known as a turducken, a twisted invention that combines the boneless bodies of a turkey, a duck and a chicken. You can get one for $60 on the internet. I’ve heard they’ve added a fourth bird this year. A parakeet, buried deep in the center, with feathers, as kind of a colorful surprise for eating your way through the outer layers. If you stick with turkey, you obviously can roast it in the oven (the traditional way) but now I hear deep-fried turkey is a treat to behold. Also smoked turkey is a favorite in some areas. Whatever pleases your palette, go for it.

But remember the following day. Black Friday. It’s really not about WalMart and Best Buy and Amazon, and up to 70% off if you show up before sunrise. No, Black Friday is a day of mourning for the forty-six million who gave so we could receive. A grateful nation bows its head and gives thanks to the noble turkey. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Sounds of Music in St. Louis

Listen. Can you hear it? It’s out there. A violin. A trumpet. A bass. A Steinway and a Selmer. These are the sounds of autumn. As nature’s world goes through her changes, leaving summer behind. the Sounds of Music flourish in St. Louis.
     I learned Beethoven's “Fur Elise” on the piano when I was ten, thanks to my mom’s love of classical piano. Her favorite was Chopin. At a statewide competition I won a tiny gold piano pin for that number. And so it began with classical music.

     Jazz came next, in the shape of two LP’s from Columbia - “The 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.” I had never heard songs and players like this before. Their names are still magic for me: Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Jess Stacy, Babe Russin. And of course the great Benny on clarinet. I still have those albums, framed on my office wall.
     Which brings me to the point of these musings: I love this time of year in St. Louis. Sure, the trees are colorful and yard work is about over (except for raking), the "back to school" ads have been recycled. Even as the autumn leaves pass by my window, I can hear the downbeats, the count-offs, the tuning-ups, the reverent silence and enthusiastic applause just around the corner.
     The music season has returned to St. Louis, much of it centered on Grand Avenue. I don't mean to imply that there isn't music scattered throughout the city and county throughout the year. It's just that Grand is where the lights shine brightest.
     St. Louis is home to one of the premier jazz clubs in America, The Bistro, aka Jazz at the Bistro.
It sits near Grand and Washington, about a hundred yards east of the magnificent Fox Theater. The Bistro underwent an extensive face-lift during the summer, which promises to make it even more audience friendly and "cooler" than before. Gene Dobbs Bradford has done a terrific job over the years keeping jazz on track in our town. 
     One word of caution: this place is “respectable.” Which is good, but I also remember, quite fondly, the jazz clubs here in the '50's and 60's.
Peacock Alley, the Dark Side, Jazz Central, the Glass Bar, Gino's, Georgie’s, and - on the East Side - the Blue Note, the Terrace Lounge, the Palladium. Those clubs had "atmosphere." Which means they were crowded, had uncomfortable chairs, watered down drinks, lots of chatter, and almost everyone smoked or so it seems. Even today there are times when I’d like a Newport and a bourbon while listening to jazz. I quit smoking 30 years ago. Still.....

     Okay. Enough about jazz. Let's modulate over to classical. From The Bistro, stroll three blocks north and you're at Powell Hall, home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. 

     While we're on Grand, one final word about music. Namely, The Broadway Musical. Thanks to Mary and Leon Strauss, the Fox is still a showplace over eighty years after it first opened. Back then it was movies, one of the great palaces on Grand. Today the road companies from Broadway, as well as popular music acts of all genres, keep the Fox and the neighborhood vital. 

One block west of the Fox is the Sheldon Concert Hall,
built in 1912 and another superlative music venue with perfect acoustics. I went there Sunday night with my brother to see Spokfrevo Orquestra, a 17-piece band from Brazil that blew the roof off. One of the most exciting musical events I've ever seen. St. Louis was one of only 7 cities in the U.S. to book this band, and The Sheldon did it. According to the program, frevo music is a combination of "vivid, frenetic and vigorous rhythm" with an amalgam of several Brazilians music genres. In other words, you've gotta hear it to believe it.  In Concert: Spokfrevo
     So let the leaves fall, the chill winds blow, and summer become a memory. As long as there’s a soundtrack for autumn, I’m happy. And what better way to close off this show than with the Stan Getz definitive recording of "Early Autumn." Sit back, relax, and listen.