Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Robin L. Chandler, 2021.
Many years ago, when we wanted to learn about jazz, our dear friend Peggy, a connoisseur of improvisational music, began our education with the 1961 album Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane. The album was recorded in 1957, when Monk and his quartet, featuring John Coltrane on tenor sax, were deep in their landmark six month residence at the Five Spot Café in New York’s East Village. To this day, over sixty years later, their grooves are rubies, my dear, gems I turn to when I need to bebop and blow the blues away.
For the last few weeks, I have been making plans with family and friends for treks to Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras. The mountains are calling and I must go! While Covid-19 has kept me close to home, in my dreams I have visited the wilderness and have touched the Earth. Soon, I will be in the mountains breathing the air in a place as big as my dreams where trees connect the land to the sky. I will breathe and my spirit and body will be filled with beauty. Everyone should have the opportunity to breathe the good air of mountains and trees; everyone should feel welcome in the wilderness. But I fear the wilderness – this life giving world of trees and land and sky – may become a dream if we don’t act soon. The wilderness, like a garden nourishes plants and creatures, both animal and human. Respect, compassion, knowledge, and dialogue are critical to caring for landscapes (and all creatures). Otherwise, as we tread the Earth, we will leave nothing but scars on the land, the plants, and all living creatures.
Breath has been much on my mind lately, just as George Floyd’s last breath has been rattling the conscience of my nation. Many Black Americans are marching and rightfully demanding answers about violence. Many White Americans are searching their souls grappling with the violence that is continually perpetrated on people of color. It is time to search our souls and time to listen deeply; we must bathe in these painful and guilt-choked waters before taking action. When Black people say “I can’t breathe” they are saying I can’t take a breath because the police are choking me; I can’t take a breath because I have less economic opportunity; and I can’t take a breath because where I live the air is polluted. This is what we think about when we discuss the need for equality, equity and justice.
Most of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space by the earth’s atmosphere. But due to human activity we have reached the highest amount of carbon dioxide in the last 600,000 years; it has risen from 277 parts-per-million (ppm) to 417ppm in just two hundred years. Carbon dioxide has increased because of our use of fossil fuels and deforestation practices. Since 1850 (the beginning of the industrial revolution), the temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Centigrade (C). In some areas temperatures are rising more than in others; in the United States, the Southwest has warmed up 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.8 C) and parts of the Arctic have already warmed by more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or (4.0 C). As the climate changes, extreme events increase; there are deeper droughts; more severe rain events resulting in massive flooding; and heat waves. For a number of years, the United Nations (UN) has stated that 2.0 degrees Centigrade is the temperature level the world must hold to and this was formalized in the 2015 Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN commissioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to consider what are the dangerous / unacceptable levels of climate change; the panel’s work resulted in a report, presented in 2016, that details impacts at both 2.0 degrees Centigrade and 1.5 degrees Centigrade. The main messages of the report are as follows: the climate has already warmed 1.0 degree Centigrade from pre-industrial times which has already made significant impacts, and without further action temperatures could rise above 3.5 C (6.3 F); every bit of warming matters, losses increase significantly from 1.5 C to 2.0 C; and limiting warming to 1.5 C requires deep cuts in emissions (50% by 2030). The United States did not approve the report.
White-supremacy plays a significant role in the climate crisis, just as it does in the political and economic suppression of people of color. Some of the most important things you can do to strengthen the climate movement is to fight facism against brown and black people; as we take action to ensure that black and brown people have clean air, clean water, and access to trees in their neighborhoods, we will fight climate change, and help all inhabitants of Earth.
People of color are not strangers to the Earth. In her essay EARTHBOUND on solid ground,bell hooks wrote about walking through rows of crops with her grandfather, a Kentucky sharecropper, who taught “I’ll tell you a secret…no man can make the sun or the rains come – we can all testify. We can all see that ultimately we all bow down to the forces of nature. Big white boss may think he can outsmart nature, but the small farmer knows. Earth is our witness.” bell writes “when black people migrated to urban cities, this humanizing connection with nature was severed; racism and white supremacy came to be seen as all-powerful, the ultimate factors informing our fate. When this thinking was coupled with a breakdown in religiosity, a refusal to recognize the sacred in everyday life, it served the interests of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.”
It is our shared responsibility to preserve our Earth for the future and for the most vulnerable. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the frightening truth about racism and climate change and it is easy to shut down, unable to act because we believe we are powerless to act; powerless to bring about the right-kind-of change. When we feel overwhelmed, we need to sit and feel the pain; understanding the pain will lead us to action. It is time to make the change we want. There is much work to be done and we must begin today. And the place to start is exercising our vote. I will vote in November, and before the election, I will work hard to get others registered to cast their votes. The esteemed writer Marilynne Robinson recently asked what kind of country do we want? Our votes will determine the kind of country we want! We will breathe again.
 Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes heat radiated from ground level to be reflected back towards the earth’s surface. This prevents the emission of heat from the earth, thereby raising the temperature of the earth.
 bell hooks. EARTHBOUND on solid ground was published in Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy and published in 2011 by Milkweed Editions in Canada.
The last few months, while we’ve all been sheltering-in-place, I have been teaching my grandniece and grandnephew some painting and music lessons. We live about 3,000 miles apart, so, these wonderful Sunday events are brought courtesy of phones, meeting software, and social media – anything that can help us keep a connection. Recently, we sang old folksongs together – some by Woody Guthrie and others traditional. The children are very young – for them they are sweet songs, they don’t yet know the stories behind them.
When I was their age I began to learn to play the guitar and sing. A few years later, when I was about eleven I discovered the great song collector and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. At my music teacher’s shop there was a big thick book of more than 600 pages that fascinated me. It was Lomax’s 1960 Folk Songs of North America: In the English Language that included the melodies and guitar chords transcribed by Peggy Seeger, sister of the beloved folk singer Pete Seeger. Somehow I scraped the money together, and about a year later, I bought this treasure chest representing all regions of the United States, song stories about sailors, farmers, pioneers, railroaders, hoboes, dam builders, cowboys, folks in good times and folks in bad times, and singing the stories taken from the countries of immigrants transplanted to this new country, many from the British Isles. The book includes a section called The Negro South where spirituals, work songs, ballads, and the blues are archived. In the 1960s it was a victory to say that African-Americans had a history, had a part in the American Story. A generation ago that was a step towards the light yet, as I opened the book to prepare for teaching my grand ones a few things about folk songs, the label used for the collection of African-American songs hit me hard. The framework is dated. It is a record documenting that era, but how do I tell little children about the pain and suffering that comes from the racism, which is the source of some of these songs? How do you tell that story? What do they need to know? As a historian and archivist, I understand and appreciate the book’s artifactual value, but from the perspective of an uninformed reader, without any context, I wonder. History is complex; when and how do you introduce the complexities? Some fifty years later, that book has traveled with me across the country and across my many paths. It’s been a constant in my life; and as I grew the music taught me empathy and I began to learn about the complexities. It opened the door to so much wonderful music – music I’ve played and sung, and music I’ve listened to and helped me become an archivist and historian. It put me on the path to discover the stories behind the songs. The book is a catalog of our roots, Americana, a music visited by many artists during the 1960s ranging from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead, and more recently by musicians such as Dave Alvin and Tony Dubovsky. That wonderful big black book and the stories it tells has played an important part in my life. And perhaps that is what I tell my grandniece and grandnephew; learn the truth about what was and with empathy be part of writing the new story and writing their new song.
Big Bill Broonzy (1903-1958) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who wrote and copyrighted more than 300 songs – some of his songs are included in the Folk Songs of North America. The Smithsonian Folkways Recordings also captured Mr. Broonzy singing both some of his songs and traditional songs like Trouble in Mind, C.C. Rider, and Midnight Special. On late nights, I love listening to Mr. Broonzy then turning around and trying to play his songs myself. I do OK on the singing, but he was a master guitarist, so I just try to get the rhythm guitar going. Born in Mississippi, he worked as a sharecropper, preacher, soldier in World War I, and later, after moving to Chicago as a Pullman Porter, a foundry worker. But through it all, there was always the music he wrote, played and recorded including folk songs, spirituals, country blues, urban blues, and some jazz. His voice is authentic, it is strong, it is ironic, it is sad, it is angry, it is wise, it is brilliant, and it is beautiful.
One of Mr. Broonzy’s most poignant blues compositions is the Black, Brown, and White Blues. It’s a song about the relentless Jim Crow…it always finds some place to roost. Mr. Broonzy “had written this protest song, which addressed the experiences of black war vets and the painful issue of preferential treatment by gradations of skin color, in 1945 and had offered it to RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca and several of the newly formed independent record companies, but none of them wanted to record it. As a result Mr. Broonzy had to wait until 1951 before he could record the song commercially in Europe for a white and overseas audience. In the US it took until after his death in 1958 to be released and was titled Get Back.” Relentless. I share the lyrics below. The Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery giving the benediction paraphrased the song at the 2009 inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama stating “we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”
And here we are in May 2020, and once again we are a nation pushing the contours of its historic founding documents, hoping that those long cotton threads are strong and flexible. We are engaged in a mighty struggle. What vision of America will triumph: the fearful authoritarian contraction or the confident democratic expansion? Will our Bill of Rights be torn to pieces as we fight oppression with our questions, our demands, and our protest? Taking inspiration from Dr. Lowery, it is a good time to write and sing a new song about these struggles. The new song will be righteous, like Bill Broonzy’s, but it will sing a story about the struggle for justice and a vision of political power, economic opportunity, and respect for all.
Darkness appeared in the corner of my eye. The sun dawdled splashing yellow and orange in her wake. Stars like motion detectors tracked the sun’s journey. And then suddenly, almost without warning, it was night. In the beauty of the evening it was easy to neglect the rotation and forward motion of time. Ebb tide, the waves teased the shoreline, waiting, where families danced the crescendo. On the beach friends gathered sharing stories and laughter. Beach fires, first flickering, grew stronger against the night sky, a shield against the darkness, a memory of color and warmth. In this context, fire is friend, a restorative. Staring into the magical flames, I reflect and imagine, a ritual connecting humankind across the millennia. But miles from here, on this summer night of the fourth year of our drought, fire crews are on the line, feverishly working to contain an inferno, capable of erasing entire communities. Difficult to believe on this calm, still night, but scientists say this pacific ocean nurtures El Nino; the infant, powerful, bringing rain and flood to wash away our sins. We live in a fundamental time; a time of powerful extremes. It is feast or famine, flood or fire; forces are in motion changing lives forever in a matter of seconds. A minor traffic violation, becomes a struggle for power; a match is lit resulting in a conflagration of unimagined consequences. Lives are ended, families devastated, and communities entrenched. And for what? How do we heal the rift and bridge the chasm?
The renowned African American writer James Baldwin published two essays as a book The Fire Next Time, taking it’s title from a line in a Negro Spiritual, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but fire next time.” In the first essay titled The Fire Next Time: My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation, Baldwin discusses the history of race in the United States. Baldwin argues that Americans, black and white, must step outside themselves and re-examine what they believe, understand and fear. Counseling his young nephew, Baldwin writes “know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go…please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear…and if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it…you came from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.”
Last Wednesday was a beautiful misty morning; perfect weather for a bike ride through the great meadow. Everywhere the fragrance of sweet wet grass, and fog covered my Santa Cruz campus like a blanket. Damp air kissed my face making rivulets of sweat and rain. Up ahead a great black raven perched on a young Douglas Fir calling out percussively toc toc toc; I responded with a smile singing “packed up all my care and woe, here I go singing low, bye, bye, blackbird.” Written in 1926, Bye, Bye Blackbird became a popular standard covered over the decades by jazz singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, and Nina Simone. I climb the hill, my crank spinning deliberately, a revolution at a time, while I riff on John Coltrane’s cover of Bye, Bye, Blackbird. The great jazz saxophonist believed deeply in music’s power. In a 1966 interview with Frank Kofsky, published in Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music, Coltrane said “music is an expression of higher ideals…brotherhood is there; and I believe with brotherhood, there would be no poverty…and there would be no war…I know that there are bad forces, forces put here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world, but I want to be a force which is truly for good.” It gives me great pleasure to write that the UC Santa Cruz Library Special Collections & Archives preserves and makes accessible the Frank Kofsky Audio and Photo Collection of the Jazz and Rock Movement 1966-1968. Selected photographs from the collection are available online including an image of John Coltrane and his wife Alice (on piano) in performance.
In just under thirty-three days, the AIDS LifeCycle begins and we ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Cranking up the training, I’ve been riding some classic climbs in the Bay Area: Pinehurst to Skyline, the Three Bears and the Hicks Valley Wilson Hill Road. But recently I took a break to visit Austin, Texas the home of former Governor Ann Richards. Austin hosted the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) annual meeting. It doesn’t take much arm twisting to visit the queen city of Central Texas. Because in Austin you can easily find great music (we saw Squeeze Box Mania at Threadgills which featured the great conjunto tejano accordianist Joel Guzman and songwriter / vocalist Sarah Fox), local brews (Thirsty Planet’s Yellow Armadillo Wheat) and Southern comfort food (fried pickles)! And April is a beautiful time to visit Texas. Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush nonchalantly grace street corners and boulevard median strips. And a quick drive outside the city limits brings sights of mother Longhorns doting on their calves frolicking in pastures among the spring wildflowers. A meeting like SAH provides the opportunity to dig deeper into the urban landscape and we participated in the post-conference tour Transition, Gentrification and Hidden History in Austin’s Black Neighborhoods. When the Civil War ended in 1865, many freed slaves migrated to the nearest town where they settled and established neighborhoods such as Austin’s Clarksville and Wheatville. Some freedman like Orange Hancock settled on land formerly
owned by their masters such as the Moore-Hancock Farmstead. Built in 1849, the Moore- Hancock home is the oldest Austin log cabin on it’s original site and a tangible link to 19th century African-American history in north-central Austin. The Freedmen communities thrived until 1928 when the Austin City Master Plan achieved segregation by zoning East Austin as a district where services and amenities such as plumbing and paved roads would be provided to African-Americans. With this zoning plan, Austin sought to draw African-Americans to the East side of town and extinguish black neighborhoods encroaching on expanding white Austin. Some eighty-years later, East Austin is gentrifying as popular food venues such as Franklin Barbecue have opened (just down the street from the historic Chitlin’ Circuit nightclub the Victory Grill where one of my favorite blues players W.C. Clark got his professional start) and the Rosewood Courts Housing Authority seeks a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. To learn more about these neighborhoods, read Michelle Mears book And Grace Will Lead Me Home: African-American Freedman Communities of Austin, Texas 1865-1928.
The night was a feast for the senses. We walked into hot, steamy and packed Vaughns, everybody dancin’, greeted by Kermit Ruffin’s wailing St. James Infirmary. Dan Baum’s book Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans came to mind: “what lit Wil up inside was the music – a ship on the river sounding it’s horn across the Marigny, the clickety-clack of the trains along the Press Street tracks accompanied by the eighth-note ding-ding-ding of the signal lights at Dauphine…the music was all around him and inside him.”
New Orleans, Dan Baum writes, finds itself “perpetually whistling past the graveyard.” It is somehow fitting thatSt. James Infirmary, a blues single was first recorded by the New Orlean’s trumpeter Louis Armstrong in December 1928. St. James Infirmary is a death lament, rooted in a 18th century English folk song The Unfortunate Rake. This same ballad inspired the birth of the cowboy dirge the Street’s of Laredo, which in turn inspired Emmylou Harris and Guy Clark to write in memory of Emmylou’s father the poignant Bang the Drum Slowly. New Orleans jazz funeral bands accompanying a procession to the cemetery typically play dirges and hymns, slow sober songs like Nearer My God to Thee, Old Rugged Cross or St. James Infirmary. The lyrics of the three songs mashup well, a testament to their origin…went down to St. James Infirmary, saw my baby there, sat down on a long white table, so sweet, so cold, so fair…get six jolly cowboys to carry my coffin, get six pretty maidens to bear up my pall, put bunches of roses all over my coffin, roses to deaden the clods as they fall…bang the drum slowly, play the pipe lowly, to dust be returning, from dust we begin.”
In August 2005, just days before hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans forever, I attended the Society of American Archivist’s (SAA) annual meeting in The Big Easy. Eight years later the archivists returned to honor and engage with the life of this unique American city. The Quarter, six feet above sea level, experienced Katrina as just another hurricane, water rose, and it drained away. But the Lower Ninth Ward on the south side of the canal and below Lake Pontchartrain, was devastated when the levee broke, and an African-American community lay on it’s death bed and nearly passed away. Dan Baum described life across the canal in the Lower Ninth Ward in the mid-20th century as “heaven for newcomers from the country…the lots…big enough for chickens, pigs and even horses…neighbors understood each other…you took care of your family, sat on your porch in the evening, and went to church…a quiet country life right there by good waterfront jobs.” Change is the essence of life, and we must accept this truth. The Lower Ninth Ward will never regain it’s former self, but rebuilding is underway. Organizations like lowernine.org and Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation are putting volunteer energy and funding into creating new homes for the Lower Ninth’s community members. Many archivists participated in SAA’s service day serving as volunteers with lowernine.org during the annual meeting; Bill Ross, Head of Special Collections and Archives at the University of New Hampshire where he teaches a class New Orleans: past, present and future, organized this opportunity working with Lowernine.
The last week of August 2013 my stepsister Linda died after a five-year battle with cancer. Linda was a wonderful person: devoted to her family and friends, fun, and smart…so smart. I know life is about impermanence, but the pain feels so permanent for those that loved her. And so many loved her; she was a much beloved daughter, friend, mother, and wife. Attending her funeral at the graveside in Texas, I remixed (again) and riffed on the lyrics of St. James Infirmary, Streets of Laredo, and Bang the Drum Slowly: let her go, let her go, god bless her…we beat the drum slowly and played the fifth lowly, and bitterly we wept as we bore her along, take her to the valley and lay the sod o’er her, for she’s a young cowgirl and she did no wrong.
Summer is typically the time for blockbuster movies and their sequels: Iron Man, Star Trek, X-Men; the list goes on. But this summer, you don’t need to go to the movies to participate in blockbusters and their sequels. History it seems is a series of blockbuster events with sequels, taking the form of declarations, laws, court-decisions, executive-orders, opinion-pages, blogs, marches, rallies, and the unfortunate loss of dialogue manifesting itself as gridlock, filibuster or most regretfully as violence and battlegrounds on the streets where we work and live.
Several anniversaries of blockbuster events concerning freedom, justice, and rights in our nation’s history occur this summer; some are annual rituals, others are commemorations of significant anniversaries. Juneteenth celebrated annually on June 19 commemorates the day slavery was abolished in Texas in 1865 as a result of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. The Stonewall Riots in New York’s Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969 were a series of spontaneous and sometimes violent demonstrations by members of the gay community (many of whom were angry and fed-up drag queens) protesting a police raid on gay bars. As a result gay rights organizations and newspapers were formed in New York and nationwide seeking civil rights for gay Americans. As a result, the first gay pride march was established in 1970, an event celebrated annually in cities throughout the United States and the world. July 1 – July 3, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg considered by many historians to be the turning point in the Civil War, whose origins lay in contentions over the abolition or extension of slavery in the United States. July 4th is of course our annual commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence proclaiming all men are created equal, a statement universally adopted as human rights. On August 28th, our country will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where in 1963 more than 300,000 Americans rallied at the Lincoln Memorial calling for civil and economic rights for African Americans; this march is credited for the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).
This summer has brought several poignant sequels to these litany of History blockbusters. On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, originally passed by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson aimed at eliminating various legal strategies to prevent African Americans and other minorities from voting by preventing racial gerrymandering among other actions. The Court’s decision freed nine states mostly in the South, to change their election laws without federal approval. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting from the bench declared “the nation’s commitment to justice had been dis-served” Shortly after the decision, the State of Texas announced the voter identification law would be in effect immediately and that redistricting maps would no longer need approval.
The blockbuster historical events and their sequels continue. Will we take part? To be measured, History must be made, and each of us has a role in History making. History can be made by forming our opinions through reading, thinking, and by voicing our opinions through word and deed. August 28th, 2013, Washington, D.C. will host the the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Conferences and a rally will be held and a grassroots civil rights movement will be launched at 3PM that day called “63 Minutes of Peace.” 3PM was chosen, because that was the time Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech “I Have a Dream.” The idea is to take 63 minutes of your day to volunteer to help change someone’s world, be it mentoring a young person, aiding a homeless person, or participating in voter registration.” So, in some cases we have made progress, and in others, there is much work remaining to be done. In the end, we must progress forward; we must voice our opinions and take action to achieve freedom, justice, and rights for all persons.
“Check this out.” I listened closely as Adrian Turner queued up Poinciana by the Ahmad Jamal Trio. “It’s highly structured and orchestrated…the spaces deliberate, equal to the sounds.” In his book The History of Jazz, Ted Gioia wrote “Jamal was a harbinger of the future of jazz…his studied use of space influenced Miles Davis and anticipated the later work of Bill Evans…the charm of Jamal’s music came rather from his ability to maintain the swing, emotional conviction, and mood of his music even when playing the fewest notes.” Moments later, Adrian and his friends Darrell Morgan and Yumiko Koshima took up the bass, drums and piano, respectively, and the trio began the hard work of crafting their original compositions into a performance, inspired by the sparse, cool sounds of Ahmad’s piano and his colleagues Vernal Fournier on drums and Israel Crosby on bass (archival film footage of the Ahmad Jamal Trio in 1959 is available on YouTube). Three months later in June 2013 the trio – Adrian, Darrell and Yumi – now calling themselves Circuit M.T.G – are joined by saxaphonist Dereck Mclyn and vocalist Annabel Lee for an evening of jazz and dance called Prime Spirit at ArtShare L.A. (a sanctuary for the arts in downtown Los Angeles providing live/work lofts and spaces for performance and exhibition). Their music is sublime; inspired, I sketch while they perform. It is a perfect evening, and I hope the music never ends; it brings me such joy to experience my good friend Adrian’s art, and although I’ve only briefly spent time with Darrell and Yumi I feel connected to them by experiencing their love for and commitment to jazz.
ArtShare L.A. is near the Fashion District and a couple of blocks from South Central; the steamy hot day is coming to closure as the sun sets behind the high rises of Bunker Hill. There is historical context for jazz performance in this place. In his forward to Central Avenue Sounds, Steven Isoardi, a cultural history writer and oral historian states “from the 1920s through the early 1950s…Central Avenue, extending from downtown Los Angeles south through Watts, was the economic and social center of the black population of a segregated Los Angeles…at night it became a social and cultural mecca, attracting thousands of people from throughout southern California to its eateries, theaters, nightclubs and music venues…this nonstop, vibrant club scene produced some of the major voices in jazz and rhythm and blues and it was the only integrated setting in Los Angeles.” The book is based on excerpts from the UCLA Oral History Program’s interviews with musicians such as female trumpeter Clora Bryant (who played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington) and Buddy Collette (well known as a member of Chico Hamilton’s quintet). Looking West at the sunset for a moment I imagine the community, so vibrant in the years just before I was born, documented pictorially in Carolyn Kozo Cole’s Shades of L.A.: Pictures from Ethnic Family Albums and captured by Walter Mosley’s hero Easy Rawlins in a series of novels starting with Devil in a Blue Dress. Paraphrasing the historian Mina Yang, many factors played a role in the demise of Central Avenue: a downsizing post-WWII economy deprived many African-Americans of jobs; upwardly mobile black families were able to move out of South Central with the U.S. Supreme Court 1948 ruling making housing covenants illegal; and the merger of formerly segregated musician’s unions permitted black musicians to play in venues in other parts of Los Angeles. But for insight into the role police played in the destruction of the neighborhood read Yang’s article A Thin Blue Line down Central Avenue: The LAPD and the Demise of a Musical Hub.
In his essay Thinking Like a Mountain, Aldo Leopold recorded the moment his ecological thinking evolved. “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and I have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because wolves meant fewer deer, that no wolves would mean hunter’s paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with me.”
Leopold spent a lifetime as a forester, a professor and an environmentalist developing his ideas and perspectives on the ethics of nature and wildlife preservation. Ultimately, his philosophy, evolving over years of observation and contemplation became known as his Land Ethic, which is at the core of his most beloved book A Sand County Almanac. Aldo Leopold joins Henry David Thoreau and John Muir as one of our three great American wilderness visionaries and writers.
This weekend March 15 – 17, 2013, Point Reyes Books (near Tomales Bay) is hosting its 4th Geography of Hope Conference entitled Igniting the Green Fire: Finding the Hope in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. Typically held in March, these intellectual and spiritual gatherings are a gift to celebrate the coming of spring and rebirth encouraging us to think deeply about our relationships with the earth and our fellow living beings. At the conference’s center is the film Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time, a wonderful film directed by Steve Dunsky, edited by Ann Dunsky, written by Stephen Most and narrated by Curt Meine. It was announced at the conference that the film would be shown on PBS stations nationwide in April 2013.
Surrounding the film is a series of panel discussions with writers, thinkers and doers engaged the building of communities, the importance of stewardship and discussing our responsibilities to the land and to each other. One of the most compelling conversations has been with Michael Howard, Director of Eden Place Nature Center (part of the Fuller Park Community Development Corporation). Inspired by Leopold’s belief in the importance of community and the land, Michael Howard has built a park and a farm for the African-American community on Chicago’s South Side. “Eden” is in a place that was the former site of meat packing industry slaughterhouses, also polluted with lead poisoning which has impacted the ability of children to learn for generations. Howard deeply moved me with his work to try to persuade a people about the benefit of having a relationship with the land; a people whose daily concerns are about having money to pay bills and feed their children and who have spent years running away from a specter of linking the land to sharecropping and slavery. Michael Howard’s experience evoked for many conferee’s Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest about the emergence of non-profit and community organizations engaged in the environmental and social justice movement.
There is so much wisdom flowing from this conference, I will need days, weeks, perhaps a lifetime to really grasp and understand it all, and to see my thinking evolve as Aldo Leopold has demonstrated. But what rings clear and true is this: we need to understand that change is something that happens gradually, and it comes by engaging in deep listening, exchange with and respect for both humans and the land. We must learn to “think like a mountain.”