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About Last Night
TERRY TEACHOUT on the arts in New York City
(with additional dialogue by OUR GIRL IN CHICAGO)

Friday, May 26, 2006

    TT: Monsters, Inc.

    I just got back from the Jazz Standard, where Sarah and I heard Roger Kellaway’s first set. It was stupendous.

    Kellaway is currently fronting a piano-guitar-bass trio, which he claims to be the fulfillment of a “childhood dream.” Oscar Peterson led just such a group in the Fifties, and Kellaway, a lifelong Peterson fan who has always enjoyed playing without a drummer, knows how to make the most of the elbow room afforded by that wonderfully flexible instrumentation. Russell Malone is the guitarist, Jay Leonhart the bassist. The three men opened the set with a super-sly version of Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe,” and within four bars you knew they were going to swing really, really hard. So they did, with Kellaway pitching his patented curve balls all night long, including a bitonal arrangement of Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” and what surely must have been the first time that the Sons of the Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” has ever been performed by a jazz group.

    Everybody in the band (including vibraphonist Stefon Harris, who joined the trio for “Cotton Tail,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and “52nd Street Theme”) was smoking. Kellaway, though, was…well, I really don’t have words to describe the proliferating creativity and rhythmic force of his piano playing. Sarah did pretty well, though: “Did you see my jaw drop?” she asked me when it was all over. Russell Malone, with whom I chatted between sets, put it even more tersely. “That man is scary,” he said, shaking his head.

    After I came home, I looked up my Washington Post review of the last time I heard Kellaway in person, a two-piano gig in 2004 with Bill Charlap at the second keyboard:

    I was lucky enough to be at Birdland when Roger Kellaway and Bill Charlap gave the best live two-piano jazz performance I've heard in my entire life. The bedazzlingly eclectic Kellaway, who has been holed up on the West Coast for years, finally decided to head east and show the rest of the world his formidable stuff. For his long-delayed return…he joined forces with Charlap, who usually prefers suave understatement to single combat. Not this time: Kellaway was loaded for bear, and Charlap rose to the occasion. Their version of "Blue in Green" suggested an off-the-cuff collaboration between Bill Evans and Maurice Ravel, while the ferociously competitive "Strike Up the Band" with which they set the evening in motion sounded like two guys shooting roman candles at each other in a locked room. ("Lotta black notes on that page," Charlap said to me afterward, grinning slyly.)

    This set was that good.

    Kellaway and his colleagues will be at the Jazz Standard through Sunday night. If you’re anywhere near New York City between now and then—and I’m talking about a five-state radius—do your damnedest to come hear them. If not, fear not: IPO, Kellaway’s new record label, is taping the engagement for release on a forthcoming live CD. In the meantime, go out right this second and get a copy of Remembering Bobby Darin, the first album by the West Coast edition of Kellaway’s Peterson-style trio.

    What are you waiting for? Get moving!

    UPDATE: Here’s a link to my Washington Post review of the CD reissue of Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet. Buy that, too.

    posted by mclennan @ Friday, May 26, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Putting Falstaff in his place

    In today’s Wall Street Journal I report on my recent visit to Chicago, where I saw Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Henry IV and the Court Theatre’s revival of Peter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage. Both are smashing:

    Next month Chicago Shakespeare Theater takes “Henry IV,” staged by Barbara Gaines, the company’s artistic director, to Stratford-upon-Avon, the Bard’s home town, where it will be performed as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s year-long RSC Complete Works Festival. In preparation for that trip, Chicago Shakespeare is presenting a month-long run of “Henry IV” on its home turf. I rank it among the best Shakespeare productions I’ve seen in recent years, though it will be interesting to see how Ms. Gaines’ no-nonsense approach fares with English critics, most of whom seem to prefer their Shakespeare smothered in political sauce and dished up with a garnish of gimmickry….

    Patricia Hodges is best known for having replaced Mary Tyler Moore two seasons ago in Neil Simon’s “Rose’s Dilemma,” an ungrateful task that she brought off with the utmost panache. She is no less satisfying in “Lettice and Lovage,” investing her larger-than-life part with a vibrant, stage-filling physicality that pulls laughter out of you like a magnet. Ms. Reiter is equally good as Lotte, the mousy bureaucrat who unexpectedly finds in Lettice a kindred spirit. I don’t know whether she and Ms. Hodges have ever acted together before, but they’re definitely in tune, and their palpable rapport has much to do with the production’s appeal….

    No link, of course (megasigh). If you care to read the whole thing, of which there is much, much more, go out and buy a copy of today’s Journal, or go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will provide you with immediate access to the full text of my review, along with Joe Morgenstern’s Pulitzer-winning film column and plenty of other worthy art-related copy.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 26, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Unrisky business

    In my next “Sightings” column, to be published in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, I ask whether “safe art” (to borrow a phrase used recently by a friend of mine) is ever worth experiencing. My answer? You better believe it.

    To find out what I have in mind, pick up a copy of tomorrow’s Journal, where you’ll find my column in the “Pursuits” section.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 26, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Memo from the Department of Acquisitions

    Envy is the lot of the unwealthy art collector. I picked up a price list at the opening of Hollis Taggart Galleries’ Arnold Friedman retrospective on Wednesday, and it reminded me that any hopes I have of owning one of Friedman’s oil paintings—even a very small one—are contingent on my selling Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong to Hollywood, or something at least as implausible.

    I returned home feeling both elated (having just looked at four roomfuls of exquisite paintings) and depressed (knowing that none of them would ever be mine). Then it occurred to me to see if any Friedman-related bargains were to be found on the Web. I searched for “Arnold Friedman lithograph,” and what did I find? This. A few more keystrokes revealed it to be a pencil-signed 1940 Friedman lithograph for sale by the Philadelphia Print Shop for the unlikely-sounding price of $225. “That I can afford,” I muttered hopefully, and fired off an e-mail asking if it was still available. Answer came there eight hours later, and now the latest addition to the Teachout Museum is en route to my door via UPS.

    The moral? You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time, you just might find something (A) close enough for jazz and (B) a whole lot cheaper. And yes, I’m feeling incredibly smug….

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 26, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Proud uncle

    My niece graduated from high school on Tuesday. I couldn’t be there, but I sent flowers, and spent the evening marveling at how time flies. Only yesterday she was a baby, and now she’s a tall, poised young lady about to go off to college. How can such things be?

    I am immensely proud of Lauren Teachout, and of my brother and sister-in-law, who raised her right. Nothing I will ever do in my life will be as difficult—or honorable—as that.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 26, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "There has been a certain amount of self-deception in School of Paris art since the exit of cubism. In Pollock there is absolutely none, and he is not afraid to look ugly—all profoundly original art looks ugly at first."

    Clement Greenberg, The Nation, Apr. 7, 1945

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 26, 2006 | Permanent link
Thursday, May 25, 2006

    OGIC: Weekend at OGIC's

    Everything you've heard is true. There were fancy-pants hot dogs, there were plays, and there was lots and lots of House, viewed with a hunger. Let's look at a few highlights.

    Saturday: Brunch at Hot Doug's Sausage Superstore and Encased Meat Emporium. I was actually trying to keep this place a secret until the next time the Gurgling Cod pays a visit to Chicago, but the cat's out of the bag now. At Hot Doug's the line on a Saturday afternoon bends around the southwest corner of California and Roscoe and practically out of sight, but I've seldom stood in a more cheerful long line. It's as if the length of the wait guarantees the transcendent goodness of the meal to come, and the patrons take an added pleasure in being part of a little community of good taste and adventure. Of course, the culinary adventures offered at Hot Doug's come with all the comforts of the familiar, presented in the usual trappings of the most quotidian of Chicago foods. Beyond the casing, bun, and toppings, though, anything goes—last weekend it was bacon-cheddar elk sausage with spicy bourbon mustard and stripey jack cheese for Terry and saucisse de Toulouse with anchovy aioli and fromagier d'affinoise for me. The blue cheese pork sausage with pear crème fraiche and toasted hazelnuts was a close second that still has me wondering what could have been, delicious as the saucisse truly was. Hot Doug's is all about the hard choices.

    The afternoon was sunny and mild, and we brunched at a booth set up in the narrow alley between Hot Doug's and the apartment building next door, feeling like we were at a city cookout. Did I mention that on Saturday's Doug offers silky french fries cooked in duck fat?

    Saturday: An hour or so at the Art Institute. We arrive and wander off half-cocked trying to find our way to the modern painting. But we find ourselves heading backwards in the time machine, from Seurat to Manet to Millet. With the eighteenth century beginning to loom, I ask a lady guard to point us toward modern. "You know that rainy day painting?" she says. Oh, we do. "Turn left there and go through the door behind it." Never thought about it before, but its size, iconic status, and placement at a crux on the second floor of the museum indeed make the Caillebotte picture as good as a trail of bread crumbs. We find modern, and a few surprises.

    I have to go to work, folks. Coming soon is Saturday: The longue, bonne durée at Chicago Shakespeare. As well as Sunday: cutting up at Court Theatre.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Thursday, May 25, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: On the town

    Our server was out of commission yesterday, making it impossible for OGIC to post her account of our fun-filled weekend in Chicago. (Yes, it's coming.) I couldn’t post anything, either, so I spent the day planning and booking theater-related travel instead. It seems I have quite a complicated summer ahead of me. I’ll be seeing a couple of shows in Philadelphia and Baltimore this weekend, followed shortly thereafter by trips to Georgia, Idaho, Oregon, and Utah—and that’s just in June and July!

    Once my calendar was neat and tidy, I headed over to Hollis Taggart Galleries for the opening of the Arnold Friedman retrospective about which I posted earlier this week. It is a truth universally acknowledged that nobody goes to gallery openings to look at art, but I actually managed to pay close attention to a couple of dozen canvases in between sips of Veuve Clicquot. I also chatted with an interesting assortment of interested parties, including Tommy LiPuma (who collects Friedman’s paintings, though he’s better known as a record producer), William Agee (who curated the show and wrote the catalogue essay), and Friedman’s grandson (who told me that he remembered seeing a copy of Skater and Dog, a Friedman lithograph I bought last year, hanging over the artist’s bed). Best of all, I ran into Albert Kresch, another chronically underappreciated American artist about whom I blogged enthusiastically a couple of years ago. Needless to say, I plan to go back again and see “Arnold Friedman: The Language of Paint” under more favorable (i.e., less crowded) circumstances, but I had a good time anyway.

    From there I went downtown to 55 Bar, a low-ceilinged Christopher Street hangout where good jazz can frequently be heard, and caught a set by Amanda Monaco’s quartet. When not playing guitar with the Lascivious Biddies, of whom she is a charter member, Monaco performs her own very interesting compositions with a tight little band that’s always worth hearing (I commend their CD to your attention).

    What next? I’ll be spending most of Thursday writing a Commentary essay about the new Clement Greenberg biography, after which I plan to meet the beauteous Sarah at the Jazz Standard to hear Roger Kellaway.

    Yes, I’m back in business again, and it feels great—but now I need some good old-fashioned shut-eye. See you later.

    UPDATE: Here’s an online interview with Albert Kresch that’s very much worth reading.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 25, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: So you want to see a show?

    Here's my list of recommended Broadway and off-Broadway shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I either gave these shows strongly favorable reviews in The Wall Street Journal when they opened or saw and liked them some time in the past year (or both). For more information, click on the title.

    Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.

    Avenue Q* (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
    Chicago (musical, R, adult subject matter and sexual content)
    The Drowsy Chaperone* (musical, G/PG-13, mild sexual content and a profusion of double entendres, reviewed here)
    Faith Healer* (drama, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
    The Lieutenant of Inishmore (black comedy, R, adult subject matter and extremely graphic violence, reviewed here)
    Sweeney Todd (musical, R, adult subject matter, reviewed here)
    The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (musical, PG-13, mostly family-friendly but contains a smattering of strong language and a production number about an unwanted erection, reviewed here)
    The Wedding Singer (musical, PG-13, some sexual content, reviewed here)

    Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living In Paris (musical revue, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here)
    Slava's Snowshow (performance art, G, child-friendly, reviewed here)

    Awake and Sing! (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes June 25)
    Bridge & Tunnel (solo show, PG-13, some adult subject matter, reviewed here, closes July 9)
    Doubt (drama, PG-13, adult subject matter and implicit sexual content, reviewed here, closes July 2)
    Defiance (drama, R, adult subject matter and sexual content, reviewed here, closes June 4)
    The Light in the Piazza (musical, PG-13, adult subject matter and a brief bedroom scene, closes July 2, reviewed here)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 25, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “The reader must sit down alone and struggle with the writer, and this the pseudo-scholar will not do. He would rather relate a book to the history of its time, to events in the life of its author, to the events it describes, above all to some tendency.”

    E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (courtesy of Kate’s Book Blog)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 25, 2006 | Permanent link
Wednesday, May 24, 2006
    TT: Almanac

    "'There is no intermediate existence, Barbara. Short of death, there's no alternative but life.'

    "No reply. Barbara was busy at the stove.

    "Returning to the kitchen, he said, 'And short of despair, there's no alternative but hope.'"

    Jon Hassler, Simon's Night

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, May 24, 2006 | Permanent link
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
    TT: Not too much the worse for wear

    Thanks to the vagaries of modern-day air travel, I spent far more time than necessary going to and from Chicago, and am feeling a bit dilapidated as a result. For this reason, I’ll leave it to Our Girl to tell you all about our action-packed long weekend, which we spent dining on Chicago-style encased meats (elk sausage, mmmmm!), sitting on the aisle at Chicago Shakespeare and the Court Theatre, and watching the Stanley Cup playoffs and a half-dozen reruns of House, to both of which OGIC thoughtfully introduced me.

    Now, if you’ll be so kind as to excuse me, I need to do some work for hire. See you tomorrow.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, May 23, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Words to the wise

    • “Arnold Friedman: The Language of Paint” opens tomorrow at Hollis Taggart Galleries. Curated by William C. Agee, who also wrote the catalogue, this show is the first full-scale retrospective of Friedman’s paintings to be seen anywhere since 1950.

    I last wrote about Friedman in a Washington Post review of a 2003 exhibition of Tommy LiPuma’s collection of modern American art:

    If you've never heard of Friedman, who died in 1946, you're not alone. So far as I know, none of his work is currently hanging in any museum (though the Museum of Modern Art owns a good Friedman, "Sawtooth Falls"), and he almost never gets written up nowadays. Clement Greenberg, long the top handicapper of American art, praised his late paintings to the skies, calling them "an important moment in the history of American painting." Strong words, coming from the critic who put Jackson Pollock on the map—yet even his fervent advocacy wasn't enough to keep Friedman's name alive.

    To understand how good Friedman was, take a long look at “Still Life (Petunias),” the prize of the LiPuma collection. In the foreground is a vase of flowers whose vibrantly colored petals all but burst off the canvas. (The thick, crusty surface was heavily worked with a palette knife.) Hanging on the wall immediately behind the vase is the lower half of an abstract painting—Friedman's way of underlining the subtle relationship between abstraction and representation. The juxtaposition of the two genres is both witty and thought-provoking, unveiling fresh layers of implication at every glance.

    I was amazed to learn that "Still Life (Petunias)" was owned by Tommy and Gill LiPuma. If their names ring a bell, it's because you probably know Tommy in a different guise: He's a big-time record producer, the man who helped put Diana Krall on the charts. I've met him once or twice, but I had no idea that he and his wife were interested in art, much less that they were true connoisseurs whose independent-minded taste has inspired them to assemble what is almost certainly the largest private collection of Friedmans in the world….

    “Sawtooth Falls” and “Still Life (Petunias),” the second of which you can view by going here to read the complete text of my Washington Post piece, are two of the forty-seven paintings included in “Arnold Friedman: The Language of Paint,” which is up through June 30.

    For more information, go here.

    Roger Kellaway opens Thursday at the Jazz Standard, where he’ll be performing through Sunday with an East Coast version of the King Cole Trio-style piano-guitar-bass trio heard on his latest CD, Remembering Bobby Darin. In addition to Russell Malone on guitar and Jay Leonhart on bass, he’ll be joined by the splendid vibraphonist Stefon Harris.

    Kellaway is one of my all-time favorite jazz pianists. I’ve written about him many times, most extensively in a 1995 Wall Street Journal profile in which I called him “the greatest unknown pianist in jazz.” (You can read that piece here.) That’s still true, alas, but a trip to the Jazz Standard will leave no doubt of why Kellaway is universally and extravagantly esteemed by his colleagues.

    Sets start at 7:30 and 9:30 each night, with a third set at 11:30 on Friday and Saturday. For more information, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, May 23, 2006 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Rain's only value, for Miss McGee, was that it reminded her how precious was good weather. She despised rain. But she knew that to the earth, rain was as necessary as sunshine. Could it be, she wondered, that the vice and barbarism abroad in the world served, like the rain, some purpose? Did the abominations in the Sunday paper mingle somehow with the goodness in the world and together, like the rain and sun feeding the ferns, did they nourish some kind of life she was unaware of?"

    Jon Hassler, Staggerford

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, May 23, 2006 | Permanent link
Friday, May 20, 2005
    TT: Out the door and into a cab

    Like the song says, I’m goin’ to Chicago. (Back when I was in college, I used the wonderful old 1941 Jimmy Rushing-Count Basie recording of "Goin' to Chicago Blues" as the closing theme of my late-night radio show, which my friends used in turn as an accompaniment to all sorts of illicit activities.) Our Girl and I have shows to see, meals to eat, and hours of intensive talking to do, and we won’t have nearly enough time for any of these things, since I must return on Sunday night and resume my regular rounds of Manhattan and its environs. We do expect to have as much fun as possible in the time available, though.

    OGIC will update you on our activities some time this weekend. I’ll be back in the saddle on Monday, though I may not have much to say that morning, seeing as how I probably won’t have much time to get it said before I fall into bed on Sunday night.

    In the meantime, enjoy your weekend.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 20, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: All about Orson (and Larry and Ken)

    It's Friday, I’m in the Journal, and I’m in a raving mood. The causes this week are Orson’s Shadow and Kristin Chenoweth:

    Now that Broadway has settled down for the summer, the show to see is Austin Pendleton’s “Orson’s Shadow,” first performed five years ago by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and currently playing Off Broadway (why did we have to wait so long?) at the Barrow Street Theatre. It’s “All About Eve” for eggheads, a thought experiment in which Mr. Pendleton, a veteran actor and sometime playwright, endeavors to imagine what might have happened when Orson Welles (Jeff Still) directed Laurence Olivier (John Judd) and Joan Plowright (Susan Bennett) in Eugène Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” in London in 1960, at the exact moment when Olivier, who had fallen in love with Ms. Plowright, was trying to get up the nerve to end his marriage to Vivien Leigh (Lee Roy Rogers).

    The fictional catalyst for this snarl of true-life ego run rampant is Kenneth Tynan (Tracy Letts), the celebrated British drama critic, who knew all the parties concerned and whom Mr. Pendleton employs as the narrator of “Orson’s Shadow.” In this as in every other aspect of the script, he weaves together fact and fancy with deeply informed audacity….

    At intermission I decided that Mr. Pendleton had given us an ingenious entertainment crammed full of good jokes. (Welles: “When and where did you hear the rumor that I’ve been playing to empty houses?” Tynan: “I heard it tonight, from the other member of the audience.”) By evening’s end I knew better: “Orson’s Shadow” also has something wholly serious to say about the self-destructive impulse that is too often the worm in the rose of genius. I don’t know when I’ve seen a better backstage play….

    Kristin Chenoweth might just be the smartest young actress in town. Perhaps that’s a peculiar way to describe Broadway’s reigning Queen of Cute, but Ms. Chenoweth is more than just a little blonde cutie-pie with a super-sized voice. Anyone who saw her last weekend in City Center’s “Encores!” presentation of “The Apple Tree,” a triptych of one-act musicals by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick originally produced on Broadway 39 years ago, will know just what I mean.

    Ms. Chenoweth played Eve (as in Adam), the jealous princess of “The Lady or the Tiger?” and a frumpy chimney sweep turned ultra-sexy movie star, interpreting all three of her roles with a specificity and precision normally found only in vastly more experienced performers. I got so wrapped up in her ever-fresh line readings and split-second timing that I almost failed to remember what a terrific singer she is, which is a bit like watching “North by Northwest” and paying more attention to James Mason than Cary Grant….

    No link, so if you want to read more (including a much less enthusiastic review of Playwrights Horizons’ Memory House), buy today’s Wall Street Journal and turn to the “Weekend Journal” section, in which you will find much cultural coverage of all kinds, all of it interesting. Or go here to subscribe to the Journal’s online edition, which is totally worth it.

    P.S. Since I saw Orson’s Shadow last Saturday night, Tracy Letts was replaced by Sean McNall, about whom more here. If and when time permits, I’ll try to go back and see him.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 20, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    Goin’ to Chicago, sorry that I can’t take you
    Goin’ to Chicago, sorry that I can’t take you
    There’s nothin’ in Chicago that a monkey woman can do.

    When you see me comin’, raise your window high
    When you see me comin’, raise your window high
    When you see me passin’, baby, hang your head and cry.

    Hurry down, sunshine, see what tomorrow bring
    Hurry down, sunshine, see what tomorrow bring
    The sun went down, tomorrow brought us rain.

    You so mean and evil, you do things you ought not do
    You so mean and evil, you do things you ought not do
    You got my brand of honey, guess I'll have to put up with you.

    Jimmy Rushing, "Goin' to Chicago Blues"

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 20, 2005 | Permanent link
Thursday, May 19, 2005
    TT: Check back with me tomorrow, though....

    Tyler Green, who blogs at Modern Art Notes, is inviting bloggers to write about their favorite painting in America and their favorite American painting (which I suppose could be one and the same).

    This is, of course, an impossible task, but having just said that it can’t be done, I’ll do it, subject as always to minute-by-minute changes of mind.

    As of the time stamp on this posting, the winners are as follows:

    • Favorite American painting: Fairfield Porter’s The Mirror, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. As regular readers of this blog know, my passion for Porter is boundless—his work is my major preoccupation as a collector—and I can think of a half-dozen of his paintings that I might be inclined to put at the top of this list. “The Mirror,” though, seems to me a particularly revealing exemplar of Porter’s highly individual brand of realism, and one that I don’t get to see often enough because it hangs in a Midwestern museum. All the more reason, then, for me to pay a visit to Kansas City this summer. Good jazz, good barbecue, a good museum with my favorite Porter—what’s not to like?

    • Favorite painting in America: Paul Cézanne’s The Garden at Les Lauves, at the Phillips Collection in Washington. I find its uncalculated ambiguity (which extends all the way to the unanswerable question of whether or not Cézanne had finished it at the time of his death) to be infinitely absorbing. I try to pay it a visit every time I’m in Washington, and I’m always disappointed when it’s not hanging (which is rarely).

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 19, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Words to the wise

    I’ll be going to Chicago on Friday (sorry that I can't take you!), but if I weren’t, I’d be going to Alice Tully Hall to hear “Five Lovers,” a recital by soprano Jama Jandrokovic.

    Here’s the “official” description of the concert:

    Soprano Jama Jandrokovic sings texts from her autobiographical collection of poetry, Five Lovers, featuring settings of the texts by leading American composers Lori Laitman, Luna Pearl Woolf and the 2004 Pulitzer Prize Winner for Music, Paul Moravec. Special guests include poet Dana Gioia, pianists Soeyon Kim and Andrew Rosenblum, and the North Sky Ensemble, with violinists Jesse Mills and Colin Jacobsen, violist Max Mandel and cellist Rubin Kodheli. Directed by Gina Lapinski.

    Now here’s an explanation of the program's significance by my fellow ArtsJournal.com blogger Greg Sandow, a tireless and trenchant advocate of non-traditional classical-music programming:

    On Friday, at Tully Hall in New York, a soprano named Jama Jandrokovic will give a recital, consisting of three new song cycles by three composers, all of them settings of her own autobiographical poetry! This really deserves an exclamation point, because normally—to state the obvious—it's people in pop music whose music is explicitly about their own lives. So now here's someone in classical music doing it.

    The poems, according to the press release for the concert, "chronicle Ms. Jandrokovic’s romantic journey as a recently divorced, newly single young woman in New York City attempting to reinvent herself." I haven't read the poems, and can't say if they're good or bad. But! The very idea of a classical singer doing something like this is revolutionary. The composers are Lori Laitman, Luna Pearl Woolf, and Paul Moravec, and the concert—very good move here—has a stage director. This is not your grandmother's vocal recital.

    I know about this concert because I know several of the parties involved, but readers of this blog shouldn’t need to be reminded that I don’t recommend anything in advance unless I have damned good reason to think it’s going to be worth seeing and/or hearing. This will be both.

    Jandrokovic’s gorgeously designed Web site, with full information on the program, is here.

    To purchase tickets, go here.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 19, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Untrivial trivia

    Things I didn't know till now, gratefully culled from The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film:

    • Total number of feature-length commercial sound films of plays by Shakespeare: about 40.

    • Average percentage of Shakespeare's original text heard in these films: 25-30%.

    • Director who "consistently uses fewer words for each transaction between characters" in his Shakespeare films: Orson Welles.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 19, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Clean getaway

    Winston Churchill said somewhere or other that there are few things in life more exhilarating than being shot at without effect. I thought of this utterly characteristic remark a few hours ago as I watched a wizard from Ms Mac Consulting wipe the hard drive of my iBook and reinstall the operating system, an experience which I imagine to be not unlike watching in a mirror as a neurosurgeon pokes around in your head with a scalpel.

    This unexpected and unwanted adventure into the unknown began last Saturday when I came home from Washington, D.C., booted up my computer, and discovered to my horror that some gremlin had translated all the words on the e-mail toolbar into Dutch. (I know, it sounds crazy, but they really were in Dutch—I checked.) Other peculiar little anomalies had been bobbing up on my screen from time to time in recent weeks, but this one was serious enough that I knew the time had come to seek professional counsel at once or run the risk of sudden and catastrophic paralysis. I got on the phone to Ms Mac and scheduled a Wednesday-morning house call. At the appointed hour, a flute-playing genius by the name of Nicole appeared on my doorstep, sat down at my desk, and started making magic passes over my prostrate iBook, which turned out to be even sicker than either one of us had suspected. Five nervewracking hours later, it was at least as good as new, and I went right out and downed a stiff drink.

    One of the nice things about Nicole’s approach to computer consulting is that she is unfailingly tactful, by which I mean that she never says things like You mean you don’t know what a [fill in the blank] is? Recognizing at once that she was dealing with an innocent, she went out of her way to behave as if my ignorance were perfectly normal. I have no doubt that this is a specifically feminine mode of behavior, having spent far too many hours being stared at in self-evident disbelief by auto mechanics with hairy chests who made no effort whatsoever to disguise their contempt for the kind of guy who doesn’t know a socket wrench from a fanbelt (I exaggerate only slightly). If all auto mechanics were like Nicole, there would be peace on earth.

    Thanks to her stalwart efforts, I now resume regular blogging activities—and about time, too. I’m off to Chicago at midday Friday to frolic on the aisle with OGIC, but until then I’m yours.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 19, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Who says?

    My Wall Street Journal review of Kate Whoriskey’s Shakespeare Theatre production of The Tempest, in which I suggested that audience members wait to read her program notes until after they’d seen the show, has inspired a couple of very interesting posts elsewhere in the blogosphere. (You’ll find them here and here.)

    These postings put me in mind of H.L. Mencken’s saying that criticism is “prejudice made plausible.” He had a point, but some prejudices don’t lend themselves to such treatment, or at least shouldn’t. I don’t like all art, I’m pretty sure I don’t like all good art, and I think it’s the better part of wisdom for me not to pretend that all the art I dislike is bad. Like everyone else, I have my share of aesthetic allergies, which may or may not necessarily correspond to the Truth About Art.

    All other things being equal:

    • I prefer short plays, films, novels, and pieces of music to long ones. (I also prefer small paintings to large ones, which is not exactly the same preference but probably a second cousin to it.)

    • I prefer comedy to tragedy.

    • I prefer prose to poetry.

    • I prefer simplicity to complexity.

    • I prefer realism to fantasy. (This is why I prefer comedy to tragedy, by the way: I think it’s truer to life.)

    • I usually have major problems with “documentary” art, or any other kind of idea-driven art. Marcel Duchamp said that he inscribed sentences on his “ready-mades” in order to “carry the mind of the spectator towards other regions more verbal.” That sums up the kind of art I like least.

    • I loathe “artiness.”

    • I tend not to like camp.

    To some extent these prejudices can be made to add up to a rough and ready philosophy of art, but the alert reader will note that they also contain some built-in contradictions. O.K. by me. As I’ve said time and again, art is empirical: first you make it, then you decide whether it works, then you try to figure out why it works. Similarly, criticism starts with the critic’s spontaneous, unmediated response to an aesthetic experience. If it doesn’t, it’s bad criticism—period.

    One of the reasons why I trust my taste is that it not infrequently leads me in surprising directions. I’ve reviewed more than a few plays and productions for the Journal that didn't conform to my list of prejudices, but which I loved anyway. (Among them were Anna in the Tropics, Charlie Victor Romeo, I Am My Own Wife, Intimate Apparel, Jumpers, Nine Parts of Desire, Private Jokes, Public Places, Rose Rage, and Small Tragedy.) A critic who always knows in advance what he’s going to like—or dislike—is writing about the show in his head, not the show in front of him. One sure way to increase the likelihood of surprise is not to look at the printed program at all, and sometimes that’s just what I do: I go in, sit down, and see what happens.

    In the case of The Tempest, I knew that Ms. Whoriskey claimed to have interpreted Shakespeare’s text in a highly political way, which is definitely not my thing—but I’d also been told in advance by a person whose taste I trust without reservation that the production was first-rate, so I split the difference, went in cold, and didn’t crack open the program until intermission, by which time I was already head over heels and happy to be. So much the better. It's not uncommon for me to have clear-cut advance expectations about the shows I review, but I’m always willing to be proved wrong, and delighted to admit it in print.

    I’m sure several of you out there are already thinking the same thing, and I’m a half-beat ahead of you: doesn’t it matter that Kate Whoriskey superimposed a political interpretation on The Tempest and came up with a beautiful production? Duh, yeah, of course. To be sure, my experience suggests very strongly that politicizing Shakespeare (or any other great playwright) tends not to yield good results, but if it works for her, it works for her, regardless of whether it works for anyone else.

    As for me, all I care about is the end result. Bore me and I’ll fall asleep, even if I agree with every word you say. Astonish me and I’ll sit up and take notice, even if I think you’re dead wrong. In art, the only unforgivable sin is to be dull.

    UPDATE: Mr. Superfluities has posted a list of his own prejudices. While they tend not to run in very close sync with my own, he says some things with which I couldn’t agree more enthusiastically. Among them:

    Theater’s strengths, in this technological age, are that it’s simple, it can be cheap and it appeals to a very basic need for physical communion….

    Campy popular cultural references mire a work in its own time. It’s one thing to offer comment or criticism of the world in which we live; it’s another to unthinkingly exploit the popularity of junk in an effort to make our own shows more accessible….

    Artists can’t afford to be without a familiarity with the other art forms in which they don’t work. It also helps when they have a good broad basic understanding of philosophy, psychology, history and science: sometimes to inform their own work, sometimes to be aware of the questions which these disciplines don’t answer.

    Hear, hear! (Do I smell a meme coming on?)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 19, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “I have only read Proust in translation. I thought he began well but went dotty half way through like J Joyce in Ulysses. No plan. Nancy [Mitford] says it is uproariously funny throughout & only English & Americans treat it as anything superior to P.G. Wodehouse.”

    Evelyn Waugh, letter to Margaret FitzHerbert (Aug. 9, 1964)

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 19, 2005 | Permanent link
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
    TT: Back home again

    I just got back from New Haven, where I drove in order to see Long Wharf Theatre's production of Tom Stoppard's Travesties (I'll be reviewing it next week in The Wall Street Journal). It was a long night and a long drive, and I have four appointments ahead of me today—one of which is a house call from a computer repairwoman. Yikes!

    For all these reasons, I rather doubt I'll be posting anything more until Thursday. In my absence, do the obvious: slide over to the right-hand column, scroll down to "Sites to See," and explore the wonderful world of artblogging.

    See you later.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, May 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Pictures trounce words

    Yesterday I was striving to describe some of the infinitely variable moods of Lake Michigan, and tonight Mr. Modern Kicks goes and provides a one-click ticket to an unbelievably perfect—and perfectly beautiful—illustration of what I was babbling on about with these suddenly crude-seeming materials, words: Cynthia King's far more eloquent oil pastels of the very lake, in several of its moods. I haven't decided yet whether seeing her lovely pictures adds steam to the prospective Lake Diary project or just makes it seem terribly unnecessary.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Wednesday, May 18, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    “'There is no man,' he began, 'however wise, who has not at some period of his youth said things, or lived in a way the consciousness of which is so unpleasant to him in later life that he would gladly, if he could, expunge it from his memory. And yet he ought not entirely to regret it, because he cannot be certain that he has indeed become a wise man—so far as it is possible for any of us to be wise—unless he has passed through all the fatuous or unwholesome incarnations by which that ultimate stage must be preceded. I know that there are young fellows, the sons and grandsons of famous men, whose masters have instilled into them nobility of mind and moral refinement in their schooldays. They have, perhaps, when they look back upon their past lives, nothing to retract; they can, if they choose, publish a signed account of everything they have ever said or done; but they are poor creatures, feeble descendants of doctrinaires, and their wisdom is negative and sterile. We are not provided with wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can take for us, an effort which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world. The lives that you admire, the attitudes that seem noble to you are not the result of training at home, by a father, or by masters at school, they have sprung from beginnings of a very different order, by reaction from the influence of everything evil or commonplace that prevailed round about them. They represent a struggle and a victory. I can see that the picture of what we once were, in early youth, may not be recognisable and cannot, certainly, be pleasing to contemplate in later life. But we must not deny the truth of it, for it is evidence that we have really lived, that it is in accordance with the laws of life and of the mind that we have, from the common elements of life, of the life of studios, of artistic groups—assuming that one is a painter—extracted something that goes beyond them.'”

    Marcel Proust, A l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff)

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, May 18, 2005 | Permanent link
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
    OGIC: Diaries unkept and unkempt

    When Terry posts an "Entry from an Unkept Diary," I look at the title and invariably see "Entry from an Unkempt Diary." This amuses me, but it also reminds me of the journals, very much kept, of my slightly younger self. They are pretty fat and unkempt tomes, stuffed with bits of paper scribbled on at times when the journal wasn't at hand and salted away between the pages or, once in a while, scotch-taped in. It has been years now since I've attempted to keep a regular diary. I'm still a sucker for a nice blank book, however, and I buy them and try to think of other things to fill them up with than end-of-the-day thoughts, which in my case hardly ever failed to amount to small litanies of complaints—about work, about friends, but mostly about those two great sources of dissatisfaction, boyfriends and me, that is, my own fallibilities and failures. Sometimes I'd try to write about things outside the making-me-grumble and making-me-swoon zones, but those labored entries were always the worst: stiff, studied, insufferable. They always raised the same uncomfortable question when I'd finished: who the hell did I think I was writing that for? Just what audience of distinguished prize panelists did I imagine was going to be rooting around in my nightstand drawer for li-terature?

    Yecch. Back to slights and betrayals and crushes. That junk, now—that flowed like Leinie's at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap [aside: hellooo, Frommers' best editor!]. But could anything be more banal? Let's just say I'm not so sorry I put a stop to all of that.

    Still, these days I continue to like the idea of keeping a record of my daily life, but I lean away from the subjective and toward the objective variety. Not so far in that direction as Andy Warhol—no taxi cab receipts or anything—but definitely in that direction. Off and on, I'll squirrel away my movie ticket stubs. They're dandy little documents, packing quite a bit of data into the space of a couple postage stamps: the date, the movie title, the showtime, the theater's name, the price. This, for me, is the sort of artifact that can evoke a whole day besides: the company, the weather outside, the pre-movie or post-movie meal, the comparing of notes after the show. I very much want to have been keeping this book already, but it always feels too late to start. It feels especially futile now, when I'm tempted out to the movies less and less frequently (a subject for another post). Still, I should do it. If I don't, I'll think of it next year and wish I had started now.

    Another possible structured diary I'm always thinking about starting is the Lake Diary. I live a few blocks from Lake Michigan, and it looks different to me every day. If one day it is the same color as the day before, the sky is probably different. If the sky is the same color, too, the texture of the water surface is different. There's not a day I see that lake and don't say to myself—or to whoever is lucky enough to be around—"Look at the lake!" On a day not too long ago, the remarkable visual effect happened to be that while most of the lake surface was soft and nubbly, it turned shiny and glassine in the cup formed where Promontory Point curves back inland to the north. Sometimes lake and sky are both silver-gray, and the horizon is rubbed out or blurred, as if an eraser had been taken to it more or less skillfully. The possible and actual variations within this simple set of elements, lake-sky-color-texture, are infinite. And as certain reading tastes of mine go to show, I'm ever fascinated by subtle variations on a recurring theme (the variable elements in this case being color-damsel-scoundrel-scam).

    So what kinds of diaries do you keep or aspire to keep? Tidy? Or un?

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Tuesday, May 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: The Teachout way

    In case you were wondering, I fell off the Proust bandwagon for a couple of weeks. Unlikely as it may sound, my attention was diverted by Conrad Black's Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, which isn't quite as long as A la recherche du temps perdu, though it seemed that way toward the end. Fortunately, I wrapped it up last week, and am now deep into Le Côté de Guermantes, meaning that you can expect a fairly steady stream of Proustian almanac entries and other passing observations in days to come.

    Earlier today I dipped into the section on Proust in Anthony Powell's Miscellaneous Verdicts: Writings on Writers, 1946-1989, and fished out a few neat observations. Here they are:

    • “Proust did not at all avoid objections expressed by those who supposed they had been 'put in' his novel, although…the derivations from actual individuals are almost always infinitely combined and adapted. Proust himself observed that authors had to be careful with their friends 'because if my characters turn out to poison people or commit incest later on, they'll think I mean them.'”

    • “Proust liked high society in the purely social sense. Coming from a rich but irredeemably middle-class family, having a Jewish mother, his entry into the beau monde of that day was naturally something that required effort on his own part.”

    (That irredeemably is a nice touch.)

    • “One is almost tempted to wonder whether certain critics want to take it out on Proust simply because they feel that he attended more amusing parties than they themselves.”

    Ouch! But enough blogging—I've got a book to read.

    P.S. I am, alas, a hopeless monoglot, but Our Girl is a full-fledged Francophone, and I've been nudging her to accompany me in the simultaneous adventure of reading Proust in the original. Pelt her with encouraging e-mails—maybe she'll succumb….

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, May 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: While you can

    Two off-Broadway plays I liked very much are closing very soon. If you haven't seen them, do:

    • Heather Raffo's Nine Parts of Desire closes May 22. Here's part of what I wrote about it in The Wall Street Journal:

    Heather Raffo, the Iraqi-American playwright and performer of “Nine Parts of Desire,” directed by Joanna Settle and now playing Off Broadway at Manhattan Ensemble Theater, brings us closer to the inner life of Iraq than a thousand slick-surfaced TV reports. Yet her beautifully shaped one-woman play is a play, not a stodgily earnest piece of documentary theater, and therein lies its singular force and compulsion: It is persuasive precisely because it is beautiful.

    Ms. Raffo's enigmatic title is explained in her epigraph, a maxim of Ali ibn Abu Taleb, founder of the Shia sect and fourth leader of the Islamic world after Mohammed: “God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” The nine characters she portrays are based on a large and diverse group of real-life women—a doctor, a painter who ran the Saddam Art Center, a left-wing political exile living in London, a young girl who loves the music of 'N Sync—whom she interviewed over the past decade, and she evokes their dissimilar personalities (and appearances) with a precision reminiscent of Jefferson Mays' high-wire acts of multiple impersonation in “I Am My Own Wife.” Each one is wholly believable, but not in the straight-from-the-transcript manner of such exercises in theatrical polemic as “Guantánamo.” We believe in their reality because Ms. Raffo inhabits each one so fully, both as actor and as author, and because we never feel, not even for a moment, that she is making them tell us what we—or she—want to hear….

    Shockheaded Peter closes May 29. Again, here's an excerpt from my Journal review:

    An actor who looks not unlike a freshly exhumed corpse strolls onto the stage of what looks very much like a blown-up toy theater. He fixes a fishy-eyed stare upon the hushed audience…and stands there. And stands there. Finally, to the sound of nervous titters, he speaks. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” he intones in a voice of ripest ham, “I am the grrreatest actor that has ever existed!” Then he leaves.

    Welcome to “Shockheaded Peter,” now playing at the Little Shubert for what I hope will be at least a year. This homicidally hilarious British import is a musical version of the “Struwwelpeter” stories of Heinrich Hoffman, the 19th-century German author famous for his cautionary tales of ill-behaved tots who get what they deserve, and then some. (Guess what happened to little Conrad when he kept on sucking his thumbs after Mommy told him to stop?) It is, in theory, a children's show, though the only child I can readily imagine appreciating “Shockheaded Peter” to the fullest would be Wednesday Addams. On the other hand, it may be that I simply don't know enough kids, for the audience at the preview I attended was full of perfectly adorable tots who showed no visible signs of being traumatized by the hijinks on stage.

    Fully grown attendees will note that “Shockheaded Peter” owes much to Edward Gorey, though it's not literally derivative of that past master of the macabre. As much as anything else, it's an affectionate parody of turn-of-the-century mustache-twirling melodrama. The set contains enough doors (and trap doors) to furnish at least two French farces. The songs, written by Martin Jacques and performed by the Tiger Lillies, a trio of demented-looking Brits, are—well, creepy. The ensemble cast is fab, with top honors going to Julian Bleach, the cadaverous master of ceremonies, who informs us at one point that “I was trained in London, you know.” No doubt, but I wouldn't be surprised if he got his graduate degree from the Peter Lorre School of Drama….

    Don't dally—time is short.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, May 17, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    Do you miss the scene,
    The frenzy, the faces?
    And did you trade the whole parade
    For a pair of parking places?
    And if you had the choice,
    Would you still choose to do it all again?
    Are you sitting in front of the tube
    Annie Hall again?
    And do you ever run into that guy
    Who used to be you?
    Tell me, do you miss New York?
    Me, too.

    Dave Frishberg, “Do You Miss New York?”

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, May 17, 2005 | Permanent link
Monday, May 16, 2005
    TT: Entries from an unkept diary

    • The Phillips Collection, my favorite museum, owns just one painting by Renoir, The Luncheon of the Boating Party. Duncan Phillips was long in the habit of assembling “units” of works by the artists he loved best, from Cézanne to Rothko, but in Renoir's case he was content to restrict himself to a single example and let it go at that.

    Did Phillips really believe that The Luncheon of the Boating Party said everything that needed to be said about Renoir's art—that it was an all-encompassing, all-embracing expression of the essence of Renoir? I don't know, but I do believe there to be certain artists, some of them quite prolific, who can be “summed up” fairly adequately by a single masterpiece. I incline to think that Renoir was one of them, just as I think that all of Leonard Bernstein is in Fancy Free, all of Tennessee Williams in The Glass Menagerie, and all of Jane Austen in any one of her mature novels. (The same thing could be said of a great many abstract painters and jazz musicians.) It isn't that I'd necessarily want to do without the other works of these artists, but I'm not sure you learn anything indispensable about their essential quality by getting to know the whole of their output. To experience their work is like eating a favorite dish: sometimes it's made from superior ingredients, sometimes it's prepared especially well, but it's basically always the same.

    If Renoir was that kind of artist, then it's a mark of Duncan Phillips' aesthetic shrewdness that he knew it—just as he knew that Cézanne wasn't.

    • One of my closest friends is moving to the West Coast at the end of the month, not for a little while but for good. From my point of view, this has no upside whatsoever (not for me, anyway—she's getting married, and couldn't be happier). Among other things, I can't get used to the idea that in a matter of days she will no longer be a part of my everyday life. Of course it's not as though she's going to die, or join the female equivalent (assuming there is one) of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance. We'll always have e-mail, and I expect she'll even find her way back to Manhattan from time to time. Nevertheless, the dailiness of our relationship must of necessity come to an end: I won't be able to call her up and ask her if she wants to see a play with me tomorrow night, or have lunch and stop by a gallery later today. I'm sure we'll always be friends, but henceforth we'll be friends in a different way, one I'm simply not able to imagine as of yet.

    I don't look forward to losing that precious dailiness. At the same time, I know that its loss will open up space in my life for…what? Will another friend, or several friends, step forward to fill that open space? Will it be filled by someone I don't yet know, or whom I only just met? Might it, too, be filled in a different way?

    The good news is that middle age has made me a bit more sanguine about change. Perhaps sanguine isn't quite the right word. Accepting may be closer to the mark. Either way, I do know that I've survived some fairly horrific changes in my own life, and—like the song says—I'm still here:

    I've stuffed the dailies
    In my shoes,
    Strummed ukuleles,
    Sung the blues,
    Seen all my dreams disappear,
    But I'm here.

    That's from Stephen Sondheim's Follies. Another song from that famously dark show contains an equally hard piece of wisdom that is no more accessible to the young:

    The roads you never take
    Go through rocky ground,
    Don't they?
    The choices that you make
    Aren't all that grim.
    The worlds I'll never see
    Still will be around,
    Won't they?
    The Ben I'll never be,
    Who remembers him?

    Maybe not completely inaccessible: I'd never seen Follies when I wrote these words in a book I published fourteen years ago:

    I did not yet know that we are born into a vast room whose walls consist of a thousand doors of possibility. Each door is flung open to the world outside, and the room is filled with light and noise. We close some of the doors deliberately, sometimes with fear, sometimes with calm certainty. Others seem to close by themselves, some so quietly that we do not even notice. “I want to play the violin,” I said to my parents one day, and nobody bothered to tell me that a half-dozen doors slammed shut at that very moment—not just the door marked BECOMES JAZZ TRUMPET PLAYER but the one that said BECOMES SMALL-TOWN LAWYER AND SPENDS LIFE IN SMALLTOWN, U.S.A., the one my father would someday encourage me to walk through, not knowing that it was already bolted shut….

    Perhaps I did understand what Sondheim meant, at least in part, but there was one thing I couldn't have known fourteen years ago, which is that the door you finally walk through leads to another, smaller room. The journey never ends—and the doors never stop closing.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, May 16, 2005 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    Masons, when they start upon a building,
    Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

    Make sure that planks won't slip at busy points,
    Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

    And yet all this comes down when the job's done
    Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

    So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
    Old bridges breaking between you and me

    Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
    Confident that we have built our wall.

    Seamus Heaney, “Scaffolding” (courtesy of Saskia Lane)

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, May 16, 2005 | Permanent link
Sunday, May 15, 2005
    OGIC: Epilogues

    In the Reader essay directly below, I talk at some length about the trend Mark Sarvas started when he began issuing a report card on the Los Angeles Times Book Review in February. (You might not get the sense of a full-fledged trend from the piece; space constraints meant that references to similar report cards on the San Francisco Chronicle and Boston Globe by Conversational Reading and Bookdwarf, respectively, as well as to Ed's Tanenhaus Brownie Watch, were left out.) A few days after my essay appeared, it was announced that the editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Steve Wasserman, was resigning. A few days after that, it was announced that the Times would be making the contents of their Sunday book supplement freely available to nonsubscribers—and so they are.

    As chagrined as I am to see part of my essay become instantly obsolete, I'm delighted that we can all read the LATBR again. Thanks, Sarvas.

    Also, at the end of the Reader essay, I discuss the Lit Blog Co-op. Here my timing proves a little better: the LBC has announced our first Read This! selection this very day. Hie thee thither.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Sunday, May 15, 2005 | Permanent link
    OGIC: Confessions of a dual citizen

    What follows is my essay from last week's Chicago Reader about the oddness, sometimes, of being both a blogger and a newspaper reviewer. It wasn't available online, so I want to share it with those of you who aren't in Chicago or—for shame!—missed the Reader's Spring book issue. I made a couple of tiny changes to it. In a separate post, I note a few things in it that, in the short space of a week, have already changed! Here it goes:

    Once upon a time, the life of a freelance book critic could be an eerily quiet affair. In 1995, a couple of years after Simon & Schuster axed the imprint where I'd labored for three years on the bottom rungs of the editorial ladder, I worked some old publishing contacts and snagged a book review assignment for the Baltimore Sun. I had never written for an audience any bigger or more exacting than the desultory skimmers of my college newspaper. More to the point, I had never written anything for money. Failure seemed more of a probability than a possibility, and I proceeded with a caution approaching cold fear.

    I pored over that first book the Sun sent me, looking for a smart angle and evidence to support it, but the styles of reading and writing I was absorbing as a teething grad student in the University of Chicago English department were interfering with my ability to produce something that would go down easy with Sunday coffee. A friend, Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout, whom I'd met when he published his first two books with Simon & Schuster, took one look at my first draft and sent it back for a jargonectomy. Words like "reification," while right at home in your George Eliot seminar paper, assume a sort of, um, "alterity" in a review of a biography of River Phoenix.

    Yes, River Phoenix. Anyway, after straining the lumps of academese out of my piece, zipping up the lede, and weighing and reweighing the whole for the balance of seriousness and irreverence due a young-dead-celebrity bio, I faxed it to Baltimore and waited for the world's reaction. And waited. And waited. And I started to get used to the idea that as an out-of-town writer my rigorously considered, delicately hammered piece of prose had been sent, for all intents and purposes, into a black hole.

    My review appeared, but I didn't know this for certain until my clips arrived in the mail more than a week after the fact, followed by the check. Actual people who did not raiseme from infancy may even have read the review, in delight or disgust or, more likely, 20 seconds. I had no reason to think they hadn't—and no reason to think they had. The resounding silence came as a minor relief to my inner wallflower but an historic letdown to my ego.

    Ten years later this predicament has become so obsolete it's hard to even remember clearly. The sense of resigned irrelevance with which I used to dispatch my work into the black hole has been inverted. I now submit copy with something closer to thrilling apprehension. For a few years now, most critics have been able to count on national exposure via the online editions of the papers they write for. They enjoy a vastly expanded audience, readers have access to all they can eat in book criticism, and it's hard to see how this is anything less than a windfall of cosmic proportions for all. But it's only very recently that online exposure has developed a new wrinkle—the lit bloggers' revenge.

    In the summer of 2003 Terry, who is also a music critic for Commentary, became one of the first mainstream arts writers to start a blog. Titled About Last Night, it appears on the ArtsJournal.com site (artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight) and provides a forum for him to write spontaneously about his day-to-day life, share thoughts that don't make it into his paid writing, and generally post whatever pops into his head. A few months after starting the site, Terry invited me to contribute. I jumped at the chance. By then I was writing regularly for the Chicago Tribune as well as the Sun; for this new gig I adopted the pseudonym Our Girl in Chicago (or "OGIC"). I proceeded to post—at first as a Friday guest but eventually throughout the week—about everything from Bob Dylan's memories of Johnny Cash to Henry James on film. I blogged about what I was reading, seeing, and listening to, and sometimes I blogged about critics and criticism.

    A blog seemed especially well suited to the last—what I had learned from James Wood's latest review, say, or what a botch Hilton Als had made of a Cat Power profile. One common trait of the best and worst critics, after all, is that they make you want to talk back; before the Web there wasn't much of a viable public forum for doing so. In a small way, I was participating in what has since become an elementary function of the blogosphere: letting the print establishment have it. The fact that under another name I was a member of that establishment was easy to ignore.

    At the time I began blogging, the best-known book site was Jessa Crispin's Bookslut, launched in early 2002. A bunch of other lit bloggers matriculated that fall: Sarah Weinman, a Baltimore-based critic of mysteries and crime fiction, started Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, Los Angeles screenwriter Mark Sarvas launched The Elegant Variation, and Chicagoan Sam Jones (who also contributes book reviews to WBEZ's Hello Beautiful!) started transforming his site, Golden Rule Jones, from a compilation of Chicagoland author appearances into a true blog, complete with notes on what he was reading, publishing news, and literary quotations.

    This new wave of book blogs attracted a lot of traffic (About Last Night will soon pass one million hits) and, eventually, mainstream media attention, some of it less than flattering. "The gods of the blogosphere really, really like each other—and say so every chance they get," snarked Washington Post writer Jennifer Howard in November 2003. One big, giddy circle jerk was how she described us—"in love with themselves, each other, and the beauty of what they're creating," linking to each other liberally and uncritically, with actual book coverage taking a backseat to schmoozing. Howard's piece so offended the sensibilities of its subjects that none of them seemed to notice that her withering criticism was actually somewhat constructive: a plea from a fervent reader who was "feeling betrayed—and a little bored" by blog content that seemed increasingly aimed at a coterie of insiders.

    Howard's complaint was a strongly stated version of a truism. The same qualities that make lit blogs more fun and freewheeling than the book pages—their unedited, uncensored, and unpaid liberty—also make them less accountable to readers, writers, or anyone else. Bloggers, though, almost uniformly took her criticism as an attack, and dug in their heels against their common paper-and-ink antagonist. It was a watershed moment in the establishment of lit blogs as a new faction in the world of literary opinion: we had a blog bloc.

    There are plenty of critics-turned-bloggers like me, Terry, and Lizzie Skurnick, who started Old Hag after writing for Mediabistro.com and Baltimore City Paper, and bloggers who have migrated the other way, from cyberspace to the book pages, like Weinman (who now writes for the Baltimore Sun) and Brooklyn-based critic Maud Newton, who started maudnewton.com as a diversion from writing a novel and now writes for Newsday and the Washington Post. But even as more bloggers are absorbed by the publications their blogs were founded to supplement or counter, others are stepping up and formalizing their roles as watchdogs, resulting in a weird, codependent, and potentially explosive relationship. To someone with one foot in sea and one on shore, the whole thing can be a little disorienting.

    Until this winter I wrote print reviews and cowrote About Last Night as two entirely different people, though family and friends, and my editors, knew I had an online life as OGIC. I resisted the temptation to have one persona flack the other, but the first time The Elegant Variation linked to one of Laura's reviews, I got a definite charge. As I became friendlier with more bloggers and, inevitably, revealed myself to them, my print stuff got mentioned more often, and—this will come as no surprise to Jennifer Howard—always kindly. This was a new sensation. After nine years of reviewing in a vacuum, I had my first tangible sense of an audience. I relished the feedback and began to anticipate it. To be perfectly honest, I started working harder on my reviews, drafting and redrafting, getting back in touch with the newbie who'd sweated a river over Mr. Phoenix. It was just a hop and a jump from there to wanting an even wider audience and an undivided identity.

    I came out as Laura on About Last Night in February. Around the same time, The Elegant Variation kicked off a new weekly feature digesting, critiquing, and grading the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The Times, the sole major U.S. Sunday books supplement to lock all of its online content away from nonsubscribers, was asking for it, having removed itself in this way from the big, chaotic, inclusive conversation that goes on 24/7 on the Internet. Soon enough, though, Mark started slapping letter grades not only on the section as a whole, but on each individual review—a practice sure to strike fear in the heart of even the most practiced, poised, and professional critic. The scrutiny is hardly unfair, but that doesn't mean it ain't scary (and a tad condescending). Gee, I thought when the grades started coming down—thank goodness I don't write for the Times.

    I do, however, write for the Tribune. So when Sam "Golden Rule" Jones followed suit and started filing weekly reviews of the Trib's book pages, just a week after I'd lifted the OGIC burka, I caught a little shiver up my spine. I was still getting used to Laura being a quasipublic person—being a blogger turns out to be far more public than being a newspaper critic. All of a sudden, my newly glued-together identity was cracking along the seams again. As a blogger, I felt a certain loyalty to Sam's project. As a friendly acquaintance, I felt a certain loyalty to Sam. As a blog reader and book buyer, I felt grateful for the public service. And as a reviewer? I felt defensive and even a bit indignant. Luckily for me he doesn't lob grenades or even hand down grades. In February he critiqued a review of mine evenhandedly enough to mollify my ignoble feelings. For now.

    With all this policing of print reviews, the lingering notion that bloggers are sworn foes of the mainstream book press has become certified common wisdom. Last month, on his blog, critic Scott McLemee starkly voiced the reigning perception: "In general, literary blog discourse often treats the people running newspaper review sections as, de facto, The Enemy." Strong word, that, and particularly sobering if you're regularly switching sides.

    Hopefully, today's common wisdom will be tomorrow's old wives' tale. As bloggers continue to play both sides of the street, the enemy line is getting harder and harder to draw cleanly. Already bloggers are changing tactics by throwing their collective influence behind new alternatives to the Sunday books supplement. I'm a member, for example, of a new endeavor called the Litblog Co-op (lbc.typepad.com), which brings together 20 book bloggers to promote and discuss an overlooked literary fiction title every three months. I'm betting that ventures like this one, which present the print media with some actual competition instead of failing grades, will have more staying power than the report cards. The co-op, of course, amounts to an establishment for those who have made their names as alternatives to the literary establishment. Inevitably this attracts its own backlash, and already we participants have received a questionnaire from a writer for a city magazine quizzing us as to whether we might eventually sell out, take graft, or stab each other in the back. I can't speak for my colleagues, but I got the distinct impression that our corruption in any one of these forms would be rather gleefully received.

    posted by ourgirlinchicago @ Sunday, May 15, 2005 | Permanent link
Friday, May 21, 2004
    TT: Hither and yon

    I don’t usually reprint fan letters, but I got one about A Terry Teachout Reader that I had to share with all of you:

    I just finished reading your outstanding book of essays and wanted to thank you for an unadulterated pleasure of a read.

    You are currently my Fairfield Porter.

    Thanks again for an act of literary kindness and beauty.

    I'm still smiling.

    Which reminds me: Harcourt’s on-line catalogue now includes a page for All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. Click on the link and you’ll get to see the dust jacket. I think it’s as good as the one for the Teachout Reader!

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: On the fly

    I've been out of town sans computer, accompanied by a change of shirt and two books, Michael Kennedy's Portrait of Elgar and the first volume of the Library of America's forthcoming set of Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories, both of which I'm reading at the behest of Commentary.

    Portrait of Elgar is an old friend—I'm revisiting it in preparation for writing an essay on Sir Edward Elgar, whom I've never before had occasion to discuss at length in print. He's one of my favorite composers, and I'm trying to make sense out of the peculiar fact that his music has never been popular outside England. As for Singer, I've been up to my ears in his early stories, some but not all of which I knew. Not to tip my hand too far, but the author of whom he reminds me most strongly is Flannery O'Connor! About which much more later this summer....

    In the meantime, I've got a couple of hundred e-mails to answer and three shows to see between now and Sunday, so I doubt you'll be hearing from me again until next week, when I'll file a report on my latest adventures in the world of art. In addition to seeing Here Lies Jenny, Chinese Friends, and Sight Unseen, I hope to visit a few galleries on Saturday, and maybe even listen to a bit of music!

    See you Monday.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "One grows out of pity when it’s useless."

    Albert Camus, The Plague

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 21, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: One for the show

    I just this minute got back to New York and rushed to my waiting iBook to post "About Last Night"'s weekly Wall Street Journal drama-page teaser. Today I reviewed a pair of off-Broadway one-person shows, Jay Johnson’s The Two and Only and Sarah Jones’ bridge & tunnel.

    I liked The Two and Only without reservations:

    Mr. Johnson is a ventriloquist (readers with long memories will remember him from the TV series "Soap"), and "The Two and Only" is a show-and-tell reminiscence of his life and work. He loves what he does, and so far as I could tell from "The Two and Only," he is as well-adjusted as a man who talks to wooden dummies can hope to be. What’s more, Mr. Johnson is both extremely funny and a super-virtuoso of his mysterious craft. At one point he actually dispenses with props and "throws" his disembodied, wraith-like voice into thin air, a trick so impressive that I’m still agog at the memory of it….

    As a boy, Mr. Johnson marveled at the witty ventriloquists who frequented the TV variety shows of yesteryear. Those shows are long gone, but Jay Johnson is still here, throwing his voice in all directions and making case-hardened Manhattan audiences laugh themselves silly without resort to cynicism or vulgarity (except for one FCC-disapproved word whose precisely timed detonation caused the audience to laugh so hard that I briefly feared for the roof of the Atlantic Theater). It says in the program that he "dreamed of this one-man show for most of his life." I couldn’t be happier that his dream has finally come true.

    I liked bridge & tunnel enormously, too, albeit with one important qualification:

    The vibrant physicality of Ms. Jones’ nonstop body-snatching is if anything even more exciting than her uncanny ear for accents. I couldn’t take my eyes off her large hands, which she can transform in an instant from the air-sculpting precision tools of a mime to the palsied, trembling claws of an old woman. She’d be fun to watch even if she weren’t funny to hear, and her loving parodies of the sort of verse you’d be likely to hear at a meeting of Immigrant and Multiculturalist American Poets or Enthusiasts Traveling Toward Optimistic Openness (that’s I.A.M.A.P.O.E.T.T.O.O. for short) rarely fail to hit the target dead center.

    I liked "bridge & tunnel" so much that I almost hate to point out that it is a risk-free, feel-good show masquerading as a hard-hitting piece of political theater. Ms. Jones would be a better playwright had she dared to challenge her viewers’ preconceptions by including even one unsympathetic character in her "cast." Instead, the nominally diverse immigrants in "bridge & tunnel" are all staunch downtown liberals, none of whom would think of uttering a politically incorrect word about any subject whatsoever….

    No link. If you want to read the whole thing (and I hope you do), buy Friday’s Journal. I’m there, together with a whole lot of other good stuff.

    posted by terryteachout @ Friday, May 21, 2004 | Permanent link
Thursday, May 20, 2004
    TT: Consumables

    Wednesday was brisk, but I kept my promise to myself and made room for a little art:

    • I read two more Isaac Bashevis Singer stories, "The Gentleman from Cracow" and "The Wife Killer," over lunch. As I mentioned the other day, I’m going to be writing an essay about Singer later this summer for Commentary, the magazine in which many of the stories reprinted in the Library of America’s forthcoming three-volume Singer set originally appeared. I love Singer, but I’ve never written anything about him, and I thought it might be both amusing and oddly appropriate for a small-town WASP to do so for the famously (though never exclusively) Jewish Commentary, in whose pages I normally hold forth on musical matters. I told Neal Kozodoy, the editor, that I wanted to call the piece "A Goy Looks at Singer." Needless to say, we won’t, but the piece is already starting to take shape in my head, and I think it’s going to be good—and funny.

    • I watched a self-edited version of Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night on my trusty DVR, zooming through the dumb stuff (and there's a lot of it) to concentrate on the scenes in which Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger appear together. Anybody who knows anything about the Deep South knows how absurdly implausible Steiger was in the role of a southern sheriff. Even so, he could be a hugely exciting actor in his overripe way, and between them, he and Poitier managed to muster up quite a bit of on-screen chemistry. My finger was never far from the fast-forward key, but I still enjoyed myself.

    • Now playing on iTunes, naturally: Louis Armstrong’s "Weather Bird," with Earl Hines in the hottest possible pursuit. Has there ever been a better record of anything? (It’s been reissued a hundred times, but if you don’t already have it in your CD collection, your best bet is to order a copy of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1923-1934, Sony’s wonderful Armstrong box set.)

    I’m off to Washington as soon as I shower and pack. I’ll be back some time tomorrow, and I’ll try to work in a little pre-weekend blogging before I head out again to catch the first press preview of Bebe Neuwirth’s one-woman Kurt Weill show.


    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Overture and beginners

    Last night I went down to the New School for a panel discussion presented by the Jazz Journalists Association. Those of you who know me are probably wondering whether I’ve slipped a cog, since I loathe panel discussions and never join professional associations, but this get-together was different. The JJA invited representatives from the Institute of Jazz Studies, the Louis Armstrong House and Archives, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to talk about their archival holdings and how jazz journalists can make use of them for research purposes.

    As you may recall, my next book after All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine will be a full-scale biography of Louis Armstrong (the working title is Still Wailing), on which I expect to spend the next five years or so. Once I get All in the Dances put to bed early next month, I’ll start on the Armstrong book at last. I recently received a small but timely grant to hire a research assistant—a luxury I’ve never had—and I chose Steph Steward, a student of journalism at Rutgers/Newark, where I had the pleasure of teaching a course in criticism for two years. Since Steph was one of my brightest pupils and the Rutgers/Newark library houses the Institute of Jazz Studies, it seemed foreordained that she should spend the summer doing my preliminary research-related dirty work.

    When I got the e-mail announcing last night’s panel discussion, it struck me that it might be a good way to introduce Steph to the archives where she’ll be spending much of her time for the next three months. Little did I know how good it would be. Peggy Alexander, curator of the Armstrong Archives, gave a brilliant multimedia presentation on the marvels therein, including audio clips from Armstrong’s personal tape archive; Dan Morgenstern, the celebrated jazz critic and Armstrong authority who runs the Institute of Jazz Studies, talked at fascinating length about the IJS and its holdings. In the audience was the jazz singer-bassist Carline Ray, who knew Armstrong (she was married to Luis Russell, who led Armstrong’s big band in the Thirties and Forties).

    By evening's end, Steph was so excited that I thought I might have to sedate her—she was ready to start sifting through reels of microfilm that very night. But, then, I was excited, too. I got the idea to write the Armstrong book a year and a half ago, and as soon as my agent sold the proposal to Harcourt, I put it out of my mind. I had to. Between All in the Dances and my new career as a part-time drama critic for The Wall Street Journal, I already had more than enough on my plate. I knew that once I started thinking about Armstrong in earnest, I’d quickly become preoccupied, even obsessed, so I made a point of not listening to his music or giving any thought to the book I'd be writing. Last night, I let myself race my mental engine for the first time.

    Louis (everybody calls him that) has meant a great deal to me ever since I was a child. One of my favorite essays in A Terry Teachout Reader is called "Louis Armstrong, Eminent Victorian," and it was in the course of writing that piece that I became inspired to try my hand at an Armstrong biography. This is how it begins and ends:

    My favorite Louis Armstrong anecdote concerns his audience with Pope Paul VI. The Holy Father, so the story goes, asked Armstrong if he and his wife had any children. "No, Daddy," the trumpeter cheerfully replied, "but we’re still wailing." Though it seems unlikely that Armstrong said anything quite like that, it is the sort of thing one would have wanted him to say, and the two men did in fact meet at the Vatican in 1968—which is, of course, the real point of the story. They were photographed together, and an unmistakable glint of pleasure can be seen on the Pope’s tired, worn face; as for Armstrong, he looks blissful. Perhaps he was thinking about how far he had come from New Orleans, where he was born in direst poverty in 1901, the bastard child of a fifteen-year-old whore who had no idea that her son would become the most celebrated American musician of the century….

    Armstrong’s own moral wholeness was caught in the words his mother spoke to him on her deathbed in 1927: "Son, carry on. You’re a good boy. You treat everybody right, and everybody white and colored loves you. You have a good heart. You can’t miss." Thirty-seven years later, I saw him for the first time, singing "Hello, Dolly" on The Ed Sullivan Show. I didn’t know who the old man with the ear-to-ear smile was, but I can remember my mother calling me into the living room and saying, "This man won’t be around forever. Someday you’ll be glad you saw him." That was in 1964, back when the public schools in my home town were still segregated, two decades after a black man was dragged from our city jail, hauled through the streets at the end of a rope, and set afire. Yet even in a place where such a monstrous evil had once been wrought, white people came to love Louis Armstrong—and, just as important, to respect him—not merely for the beauty of the music he made but also for the self-evident goodness of the man who made it.

    That great smile, then, was no game face, donned to please the paying customers: it told the truth about the man who wore it, a man who did not repine but returned love for hatred and sought salvation through work. "I think I had a beautiful life," he said not long before his death in 1971. "I didn’t wish for anything I couldn’t get, and I got pretty near everything I wanted because I worked for it." It would be hard to imagine a more suitable epitaph for jazz’s most eminent Victorian.

    Who wouldn’t want to write a book about a man like that? H.L. Mencken, George Balanchine, and now Louis Armstrong: it’s a pretty good American trilogy, as American trilogies go, and now the time has come to start sketching the third panel. Well do I know that the hard part is ahead of me, but even so, I can hardly wait to get All in the Dances wrapped up. Another long, straight road is stretched out in front of me, and I’m ready to start running again.

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Misery loves company

    For most of my life, I’ve kept my pens and pencils in a coffee mug. It used to be a Miami City Ballet mug, but I knocked that one off my desk and broke it a few weeks ago. Now it’s a sturdy white number which sports a colorful (and accurate) self-caricature of the one and only Cup of Chicha, one of "About Last Night"’s favorite bloggers. You can purchase this item, and others no less fetching, by going here.

    While I’m on the subject, you may not know that Nathalie Chicha, the blogger in question, has just launched a second blog called Another, which I added to the "Sites to See" module of the right-hand column last week. Here’s the mission statement of "Another":

    This is an online space for my thoughts on depression and literature. My hope is that, in assembling an honest account of my depression and by providing relevant excerpts from writers’ autobiographies and psychiatric literature, I can offer readers moments of identification that undermine the loneliness and shame of mental illness. And I suspect that blogs can contribute to the public discourse on depression in ways that more traditional representations of depression can’t; since a blog is continually updated, its representation of depression is less likely to hide or mitigate contradictions and ambiguities, and more likely to challenge practiced wisdom and "pop psychology" simplifications….

    To which I can only add that speaking as a chronic writer who has his own psychic ups and downs, I think this is a great idea, thoughtfully and imaginatively executed (as if I’d have expected anything else from Chicha).

    Take a look—and buy a mug!

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 20, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Try to preserve an author’s style if he is an author and has a style."

    Wolcott Gibbs, "Theory and Practice of Editing New Yorker Articles"

    posted by terryteachout @ Thursday, May 20, 2004 | Permanent link
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
    TT: Artless in Manhattan

    I watched the tail end of Master and Commander after I got home from a dinner party in Washington Heights last night, then read myself to sleep with the last chapter of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. That, I regret to say, was that. Outside of a late-morning session at the gym, Tuesday went up in the smoke of a freelancer’s chores and an afternoon nap. I didn’t have time—or, rather, I didn’t make time—to experience any art, save for the Chopin nocturnes and Mozart arias playing in the background at the dinner party. Not only did I see no plays or ballets, but I didn’t listen to any music, nor did I read any new Isaac Bashevis Singer stories in between returning phone calls, answering e-mail, and fussing with my schedule. I wouldn’t say it was a wasted day, but neither can I say that I stopped very often or smelled many roses. Saddest of all, I didn’t even remember to knock off for a half-hour in the afternoon, sit down in my living room, and look at the contents of the Teachout Museum.

    Why am I telling you all this? To remind myself that each day offers a new chance to strike a better balance. I have to write a Wall Street Journal review this morning and plan to make a start on another piece in the afternoon, and I’m taking Steph, my research assistant, to an early-evening meeting of jazz archivists (I’ll tell you about it tomorrow). All that will surely keep me jumping from breakfast to bedtime, but I hope I remember to leave at least a little time in between for spiritual refreshment.

    I live and work in an apartment crammed full of books and CDs and works of art. Outside my office window is a beautiful green tree, and a half-block east of my front door is Central Park. How can I possibly spend a whole day with my face turned from such things? I don’t know, but I’ll try not to do so, at least not today. Tomorrow can take care of itself.

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, May 19, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "When Photoplay asked him in 1975 if he was 'fulfilled,' the buzz word of the era, he snapped back, 'Whether you like it or not, when you're sixty-two you're fulfilled.'"

    Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life

    posted by terryteachout @ Wednesday, May 19, 2004 | Permanent link
Tuesday, May 18, 2004
    TT: Consumables

    I lunched with Supermaud at our preferred downtown hangout, La Palapa Rockola (this time we played it smart and stayed out of the sun!), and spent most of the evening at a banquet. Nevertheless, I managed to quaff a good-sized portion of art before, in between, and after those two meals:

    • I paid a visit to the press view of The Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection, the first of three planned exhibitions of paintings, sculpture, and drawings left to the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Henri Matisse’s son, a noted New York art dealer who died in 1989, and his wife, who died three years ago. Alas, it didn’t do much for me, which isn’t to say that it doesn’t contain a number of beautiful pieces, most of them by Matisse the elder. But even the Matisses (most of them works on paper) didn’t really gain from being shown as a group, while the more distinguished items by other artists seemed oddly familiar. "Tall Figure," for instance, is a first-class Giacometti bronze, but I’ve seen plenty of Giacometti bronzes that are just as good and look pretty much the same as this one. In any case, most of the really memorable pieces aren’t even from the so-called Matisse Collection: they were purchased from Pierre Matisse’s gallery long ago, either by the Met or by private collectors, and were already part of the Met’s permanent collection. As for the "new" pieces by artists other than Matisse pére, I would have been more than happy to hang a pair of small Miró etchings in my apartment, but I didn’t see a whole lot of other showstoppers on display. I mean, Reg Butler? Leonora Carrington? Paul Delvaux? Raymond Mason?

    No doubt the Met’s main interest in the Matisse Collection was and is its 30-odd Matisses, which is undoubtedly why the museum’s curators romanced Pierre Matisse and his widow for a half-century and agreed to house and exhibit their collection as a collection. I don’t mean to sound cynical—that’s how big museums work—but as I looked at the Matisse Collection, I couldn’t help but think how much wiser and more unselfish it would have been for the Matisses to break up their collection and donate it piece by piece to a couple of dozen smaller regional museums. Instead, they salved their egos by leaving the whole thing to the biggest and richest museum in America, which is why I spent my Monday morning walking briskly through yet another unadventurous school-of-Paris museum exhibition, wondering why I’d bothered to come.

    • I watched a second chunk of Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (unavailable on DVD or videocassette, damn it), which continues to impress me as one of the strongest debuts ever made by an American film director. I also started watching Fred Zinnemann’s film version of The Day of the Jackal, but it proved to be sluggishly unentertaining, so I bailed out after twenty tiresome minutes and treated myself to the opening battle scene of Master and Commander, which is every bit as good as I remembered from seeing it in the theater late last year.

    • I reread "Gimpel the Fool," the first story in the first volume of the Library of America’s forthcoming three-volume set of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s complete short stories. (I’m planning to write a long piece about Singer for Commentary later this summer.) I love Singer, but it’d been a while since I last read any of his stories, and I was delighted all over again by "Gimpel."

    This passage jumped out at me:

    However, I resolved that I would always believe what I was told. What’s the good of not believing? Today it’s your wife you don’t believe; tomorrow it’s God Himself you won’t take stock in.

    • My subway-and-bus book for the week is Kate Buford’s Burt Lancaster: An American Life, which is error-prone and overwritten but great fun all the same—not unlike Lancaster himself, if you see what I mean.

    • Now playing on iTunes: Benjamin Britten’s 1968 recording of the Mozart G Minor Symphony. It's my personal favorite, though I also like Furtwängler, Szell, and Toscanini. Still, it never fails to give me an extra-special frisson to know that I’m listening to a great composer’s interpretation of the music of another great composer.

    Warning: I’m taking an overnight trip to Washington on Thursday, and I also need to concentrate on work-for-hire for the next three or four days. I’ll post when possible and think fondly of you at all other times.

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, May 18, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Carl Ender’s criterion for buying a picture was that it should repel his senses and his intelligence. Only then could he be sure of having bought a valuable modern work. Long years of practice had brought him to the stage that he would be automatically impressed by anything he disliked, and would react to anything he liked with indignant suspicion. It was by such a method that he had secured his reputation of having an ‘infallible eye’."

    Joseph Roth, Right and Left (trans. Michael Hofmann)

    posted by terryteachout @ Tuesday, May 18, 2004 | Permanent link
Monday, May 17, 2004
    TT: Just wondering

    The sales rank of the Teachout Reader took a sharp upward tick on amazon.com yesterday, suggesting that it was probably reviewed in a big-city Sunday paper—favorably, I hope!

    If you saw such a review, favorable or not, would you let me know and (if possible) send me a link? I'll post it, with thanks.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, May 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Roads taken

    A reader wrote to ask if I’d consider posting a list of books and other works of art that had served as "turning points" in my life as a critic. I’ve never drawn up such a list, though I once wrote an essay for the New York Times Book Review called "I’ve Got a Crush on You" (it’s in A Terry Teachout Reader) in which I talked about several authors whose styles I’d emulated at different times in my life. But what gave me the idea to become a critic—and what inspired me to become the kind of critic I became?

    That’s easier asked than answered, but I do know that two books I read for the first time in high school, Edmund Wilson’s Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (1950) and The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 (1966), were largely responsible for shaping my original understanding of what a critic does. Wilson isn’t as widely read as he once was, and I’m not even sure he’s all that well remembered. Back in the early Seventies, though, he still cast a long shadow across American literary life. I can’t remember how I first heard about him—I’m sure nobody in Smalltown, U.S.A., knew who he was, then or now—but somehow or other I ran across his name and headed straight for the library, where I found two chunky little volumes of the essays he wrote for The New Yorker during his tenure as that magazine’s chief book reviewer. I read them over and over again, to the point where I probably could have copied out their tables of contents from memory.

    That was the first time I’d studied the work of a major critic at all closely, and the experience left a deep and lasting imprint on my own writing. Wilson’s brusquely direct style was journalistic in the best sense of the word: he didn’t write down to the middlebrow readers of The New Yorker, but he had a knack for talking about whatever interested him in a way that was both lively and intelligible. Just as important, what interested Wilson almost always turned out to interest me as well. It was in his essays that I first read about Kingsley Amis, W.H. Auden, Max Beerbohm, Raymond Chandler, Cyril Connolly, Edward Gorey, Justice Holmes, Samuel Johnson, Vladimir Nabokov, Anthony Powell, Dawn Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Edith Wharton, and Angus Wilson. That’s quite a list.

    Wilson, I soon discovered, was a kind of freelance intellectual, a critic without portfolio who chose to make his living as a working journalist rather than by teaching. He had modeled his career after that of H.L. Mencken, and I in turn modeled my career after his, deciding early on that I would try to find a way to make my living by writing for an educated audience of non-specialists about whatever interested me. Even then, I had an inkling that the academy was no place for the cultural dilettante I was in the process of becoming, and I also knew by some fortunate instinct that I didn’t want to be a staff writer beholden to a single omnipotent employer. Wilson and Mencken taught me that it was possible to be a full-time freelance critic, and even though I held several "day jobs" before striking out on my own, I knew from the beginning where I wanted to end up.

    As I grew older, I found Wilson’s style and approach (as well as his taste) somewhat constricting, and I became interested in other critics who would ultimately do far more to shape the sound of my writing. It’s been a number of years since I last read either Classics and Commercials or The Bit Between My Teeth. But I still own the copies of both books that I purchased thirty-odd years ago, and whenever my eye happens to fall on either one, I make a point of paying silent homage to the writer who did more than any other to set me on the path I follow to this day.

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, May 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Consumables

    I’m now into the sixth day of hewing to my "About Last Night"-related resolutions (no weekend blogging and no computer after eleven p.m.). Did you know that going to bed at a reasonable hour is refreshing? Or that it’s fun to take a walk on a warm summer afternoon? Who knew? And weirdly enough, our traffic on Saturday and Sunday barely declined from its usual level, even though there were no new postings. Go figure....

    Be all this as it may, I did manage to consume a certain amount of art over the weekend:

    • I saw a matinee of Sarah Jones’ bridge & tunnel, about which I’ll be writing in The Wall Street Journal.

    • I watched a couple of DVR-recorded films harvested from Turner Classic Movies and put on ice for later viewing. Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (ineptly remade by Steven Soderbergh as The Underneath) is a cherchez-la-femme-noir in which Burt Lancaster sticks his head into Yvonne De Carlo’s mouth and gets it bitten off. Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie is a voodoo variation on Jane Eyre that packs an astonishing amount of romantic atmosphere into sixty-eight minutes’ worth of low-budget B-movie footage. Both have superlative scores, Criss Cross by Miklós Rózsa and I Walked with a Zombie by Roy Webb, who in a better-regulated world would be at least as famous as Rózsa or Bernard Herrmann.

    • I trolled the Web for modern American prints at auction and found a couple of potential bargains. I’m still frustrated from having lost out on that Hans Hofmann lithograph, so wish me luck this time.

    • I read Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters, about which more in the Top Five module of the right-hand column (completely updated since last week—take a look).

    • Now playing on iTunes: Roger Kellaway Cello Quartet, which I reviewed in yesterday’s Washington Post (see the "Teachout Elsewhere" module of the right-hand column for a link to my piece). I can’t get enough of it.

    More as it happens….

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, May 17, 2004 | Permanent link
    TT: Almanac

    "Few things pay off better in prestige and hard cash—granted you present it in an entertaining way—than safe fearlessness."

    James Agee, Agee on Film

    posted by terryteachout @ Monday, May 17, 2004 | Permanent link


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Terry lives in Manhattan. He's the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the music critic of Commentary, but he writes about... More

This is a blog about the arts in New York City and elsewhere, a diary of Terry's life as a working critic, with additional remarks and reflections by Laura Demanski (otherwise known as Our Girl in Chicago), who is also, among other things, a critic. It’s about all the arts, not just one or two... More

Terry's latest book is All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine... More




A list of new things we've liked (subject to unexpected and wildly capricious updating).

To purchase or investigate, click on the link.

  • GALLERY: Alfred H. Maurer: Fauve in Focus (Hollis Taggart Galleries, 958 Madison Ave., opens Wednesday, up through Dec. 16). A rare small-scale retrospective of the middle-period paintings (1907-14) of a pioneering American modernist whose chameleon-like mastery of a succession of styles (he started out as an academic and ended up a cubist) caused him to be both overlooked and underappreciated by critics and art historians (TT).

  • NIGHTCLUB: Gene Bertoncini (Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27, Wednesday at 7:30 and 9:30). The great acoustic jazz guitarist plays alone and with his trio. As I wrote in my liner notes to Body and Soul, his first album of unaccompanied solos, “His playing has gotten better with every passing year. The emotions grow steadily deeper, the harmonies richer and more oblique, the textures more eloquently spare.” One night only—don’t miss it (TT).

  • CD: Nickel Creek, Reasons Why (The Very Best) (Sugar Hill). Twelve studio tracks, two unreleased live cuts, and seven videos by Chris Thile and Sara and Sean Watkins. As I wrote in my liner notes, “It’s all here: Chris’ volatile mandolin, Sara’s smoking-hot fiddle, Sean’s chiming guitar, and the richly varied vocals that from the very beginning have made them so much more than a mere trio of fleet-fingered instrumentalists.” Bluegrass has never sounded so surprising—or challenging (TT).

  • BOOK: Amanda Vaill, Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins (Broadway, $40). My dust-jacket blurb says it all: "Jerome Robbins is the great subject of American theatrical biography—self-contradictory, self-hating, arrogant and terrified and gifted almost beyond compare—and Amanda Vaill has done him justice. I can't think of a better full-length portrait of an American choreographer or director, and I can't imagine a better book about Robbins ever being written" (TT).

  • PLAY: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Acorn, 410 W. 42, closes Dec. 9). A revival of Jay Presson Allen’s 1967 stage version of the Muriel Spark novella. Cynthia Nixon is a bit too nice to be believable as a Scottish schoolteacher whose romantic streak leads her to embrace fascism, but Scott Elliott’s fluid, well-managed staging is on target in every other way, and Zoe Kazan is remarkable as the angry young girl who sees through Miss Brodie’s fantasies (TT).


“Co-written and directed by Alan Rickman, one of England's best actors, ‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie’ just opened off-Broadway after a successful London run. It's an ill-crafted piece of goopy give-peace-a-chance agitprop—yet it's being performed to cheers and tears before admiring crowds of theater-savvy New Yorkers who, like Mr. Rickman himself, ought to know better…” More

“YouTube, like the other new Web-based media, is a common carrier, a means to whatever ends its millions of users choose, be they good, bad, dumb or ugly. You can use it to watch mindless junk—or some of the greatest classical and jazz musicians of the 20th century…” More

“Few major artists have been known for their goodness, but nowadays we seem quicker than ever to render summary judgment on their failings. Should we be more careful about throwing stones?...” More


“I cannot recall the last time I have responded so powerfully to the music of a classical composer with whom I was hitherto unfamiliar. It filled me with chagrin to realize that the creator of works like the Second and Fifth Symphonies, the Symphony for Brass Instruments, and the concertos for guitar and two violins (to name only a handful of Arnold’s finest efforts) had been active for the better part of my adult life. How, I wondered, could I have overlooked a master who was hiding in plain sight all along?...” More


"Terry Teachout, author of 'All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine,' 'A Terry Teachout Reader' and 'The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken,' started writing 'Second City,' a monthly column about the arts in New York, in the fall of 1999. In September, after six years and 64 columns, he filed his final report for The Post. 'I can't even begin to tell you how much I'll miss Second City,' he says. 'Not only was it a pleasure and a privilege to report to the readers of one great city about the artistic doings of another, but I learned to love Washington along the way.'...

"It's profoundly unsettling for a Manhattanite to be following the news these days. I've found it all but impossible to tear myself away from the televised scenes of mounting chaos in New Orleans and on the Gulf Coast, though I did take a quick look the other day at the first 'Second City' column I filed after 9/11. It started like this: 'We're all right, thanks. It took a week or two for us to pull ourselves together, but New Yorkers have finally started to emerge from their holes, looking for all that art offers in times of trial: inspiration, diversion, catharsis, escape.' It will take a lot longer for the victims of Hurricane Katrina to reconstitute their lives, and longer still, I fear, for them to regain access to the solace of art..." More

“Respighi is known in this country for 'The Fountains of Rome', 'The Pines of Rome' and not much else, but in Italy he's rightly admired as a witty, wonderfully lyrical composer. 'La Bella Dormente' is all that and more, and Basil Twist's magical staging commingles singers, puppets and puppeteers to tell the familiar tale (at the end they all dance together, in a breathtaking piece of theatrical wizardry). The puppets were bewitchingly characterful, the singers first-rate. How sad to think that this show received only a half-dozen performances! It belongs in an off-Broadway theater, where it would surely run until the end of time…” More


* = newly added
** = adults only
*** = replacement

Anecdotal Evidence
Books, Inq.
Chekhov's Mistress
Chicken Spaghetti
Conversational Reading
Brenda Coulter
Critical Mass (NBCC)
Elegant Variation
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such stuff
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twang twang twang
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Downtown Dancer
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Rachel Howard
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Off-Off Blogway*
The Playgoer
Theatre Ideas




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Maria Bachmann*
Bob Brookmeyer
David Byrne
Mary Foster Conklin
Bill Crow*
Julia Dollison
Makoto Fujimura
Greta Gertler
Hilary Hahn
Jim Hall
Fred Hersch
Stephen Hough*
Laura Lippman
Erin McKeown
Beata Moon
Paul Moravec
Nickel Creek
Maria Schneider
Luciana Souza

Bruce Bawer
Roger Ebert
Robert Gottlieb
Maureen Mullarkey
Mark Steyn

Arts & Letters Daily
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The American Scene
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Doc Searls*

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Satchmo (1932)
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Satchmo (1933b)
Satchmo (1933c)
Satchmo (1959a)
Satchmo (1959b)
Satchmo (’60s)
Satchmo (1970)
Adderley Bros.
Red Allen
de los Angeles***
Martha Argerich*
Chet Atkins
Chet Baker
Ballet Mecanique
Basie (’40s)
Basie Octet (1950)
Basie (1959)
Basie/Zoot Sims
The Beatles
Sidney Bechet
Robert Benchley
Jack Benny (1)
Jack Benny (2)
Benny/Isaac Stern
Leonard Bernstein***
Chuck Berry***
Ed Bickert
Jussi Bjoerling
Art Blakey
Booker T. and MGs
Boswell Sisters (1)
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Bream (Bach)
Bream (Villa-Lobos)
Brubeck Quartet
Buffalo Springfield
The Byrds
Alexander Calder
Callas Tosca (1)
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Enrico Caruso
Pablo Casals
Johnny Cash***
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Un Chien Andalou
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Cy Coleman*
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John Coltrane (1)
John Coltrane (2)
Perry Como (1)
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Eddie Condon
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Noël Coward (2)*
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Ellington (1942)
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Everly Bros.
Donald Fagen
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Fonteyn/Nureyev (2)
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Der Fuehrer’s Face
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Judy Garland
Erroll Garner
George Gershwin*
Beniamino Gigli
João Gilberto
Frank Gilbreth
Emil Gilels
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Jimmy Giuffre 3*
Tito Gobbi (Falstaff)
Tito Gobbi (Iago)
Benny Goodman
Goodman Orch/Qt
Glenn Gould
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Emmylou Harris
Childe Hassam
Coleman Hawkins
Heifetz (Mozart)
Heifetz (Paganini)
Heifetz (Prokofiev)
Heifetz (Rachmaninoff)
Heifetz (Saint-Saëns)*
Heifetz (Wieniawski)
Jimi Hendrix
Woody Herman (1)
Woody Herman (2)
Hindenburg 5/10/37
Hiroshima 8/6/45
Johnny Hodges
Josef Hofmann
Buddy Holly
Homer & Jethro (1)
Homer & Jethro (2)
J. Edgar Hoover
Horowitz (Bizet)
Horowitz (Chopin)
Mississippi John Hurt
Ahmad Jamal*
Harry James***
Skip James*
Jammin’ the Blues
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Keith Jarrett (2)
George Jones
Jo Jones
Spike Jones
Stan Kenton
The Kinks
Ernie Kovacs*
Gene Krupa
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Peggy Lee
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Meade Lux Lewis (2)
Little Miss Britten
A Little Night Music
Jimmie Lunceford
Del McCoury*
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Ethel Merman*
Michelangeli (1)
Michelangeli (2)
Michelangeli (3)
Pat Metheny
Mills Bros.
Nathan Milstein
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Thelonious Monk (2)
Bill Monroe (1)
Bill Monroe (2)*
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Nicholas Bros. (2)
Nicholas Bros. (3)
Red Nichols
Red Norvo/BG
von Otter
de Pachmann
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Astor Piazzolla*
Pablo Picasso
Webb Pierce
Ezio Pinza
Poème électronique
The Police
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Rosa Ponselle
Bud Powell
Powers of Ten***
Elvis Presley (1)
Elvis Presley (2)
Leontyne Price*
Ray Price
William Primrose*
Ayn Rand
Django Reinhardt (1)
Django Reinhardt (2)
Buddy Rich
Richter (1)
Richter (2)
Bojangles (1)
Bojangles (2)
Jimmie Rodgers
Rolling Stones***
Rollins/Jim Hall (1)
Rollins/Jim Hall (2)
Franklin Roosevelt
Theodore Roosevelt
Rose Hobart
Rubinstein (1)
Rubinstein (2)
Sam & Dave
Tito Schipa
Raymond Scott
Segovia (Albéniz)
Segovia (Bach)
Segovia (Falla)
Segovia (Villa-Lobos)
Artie Shaw (1939)***
Artie Shaw (1940)
George Shearing*
Horace Silver (1)
Horace Silver (2)
Sinatra (1965)
Sinatra (1966)
Jimmy Smith*
Bessie Smith
Smothers Bros.
Steamboat Willie
Steely Dan
Sunday in the Park
Conchita Supervia
Joseph Szigeti
Art Tatum (1)
Art Tatum (2)
Richard Tauber
Jack Teagarden (1)
Jack Teagarden (2)
Jacques Thibaud
Lawrence Tibbett
Mel Tormé
Dave Tough
Merle Travis***
Lennie Tristano
Big Joe Turner
Mark Twain
Fats Waller
Ben Webster*
Welles Macbeth
Welles War of Worlds
Weather Report
Josh White (1)
Josh White (2)*
The Who
Bob Wills
Jonathan Winters
Stevie Wonder
Frank Lloyd Wright
Lester Young
Your Show of Shows
Frank Zappa***

James Agee
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Jack Benny Program
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Noël Coward
e e cummings
Salvador Dali
Stuart Davis
Peter Drucker
Marcel Duchamp
Thomas Edison
T.S. Eliot (Prufrock)
T.S. Eliot (Waste Land)
William Faulkner
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Robert Frost (1)
Robert Frost (2)
Mahatma Gandhi
Clement Greenberg
Graham Greene
Alec Guinness
Seamus Heaney
Ernest Hemingway
Alfred Hitchcock
Adolf Hitler
Justice Holmes
Edward Hopper
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Eugène Ionesco
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Charles Kuralt
Philip Larkin
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Robert Lowell
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Norman Mailer
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Joseph McCarthy
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Mercury Theatre
Edna Millay
Czeslaw Milosz
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Pablo Neruda
Frank O’Hara
Old Time Radio
Joe Orton
Dorothy Parker
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Ezra Pound
Man Ray
Harry Reasoner
Will Rogers
Carl Sandburg
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G.B. Shaw
I.B. Singer
Stephen Spender
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John Steinbeck
Wallace Stevens
Adlai Stevenson
Rex Stout
Arthur Sullivan
Billy Sunday
Alfred Tennyson
Mother Teresa
Dylan Thomas
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John Updike
U.S. Presidents
Vaughan Williams
Robert Penn Warren
Evelyn Waugh
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