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November 2, 2003 Reviews

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Some notes on what seems to be out there, and what some of us have sampled....

Books: Words and Music - Elevated and Simplified Language

A Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care
By John McWhorter
Gotham Books, 276 pages
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
By Philip Furia 
St. Martin's Press, 328 pages, illustrated

The McWhorter book is about how language is being debased these days, as you would expect from the title.  McWhorter is a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley.  Here, setting the stage, he compares Lincoln and Bush. 
Gettysburg: "That government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." 
Cincinnati: "We have our marching orders, my fellow Americans. Let's roll."  Ah yes. 
Of course our public discourse - heard on television and radio, and read in the morning newspapers - has lost its formal nature; instead, it sounds like everyday talking.  So?

McWhorter argues that this kind of writing and speaking "compromises our facility with the word and dilutes our collective intellect."  Maybe so.  Maybe so.

McWhorter ties the use of elevated English to a basic respect for standards - "a matter of basic courtesy, just as today we still often clean up when company is coming."  Of course this begs a question - does he think "language decline" is bad in itself or because it indicates a weakening of social structure? 

Perhaps he puts the cart before the horse in another way when he claims that people have lost their patriotism, their belief in the legitimacy of the American experiment, and their trust in America's leaders, and therefore they cannot cherish their country's language.  Naturally, the left-wing radicals of the sixties are to blame for this - rock music, rap, and poetry without rhymes.   Yeah, yeah.

Oddly McWhorter speaks highly of the natural pride other cultures possess in their own elevated forms of language - the Russian of Pushkin, for example, which "modern Russians can quote without difficulty."  I'm not sure about that myself. 
He sees the problem here being that with our cultural diversity and our skepticism of authority, Americans have "bequeathed themselves" only a simplified English that they cannot love "anymore than [they] do a screwdriver."   Would it then be better - would we have more eloquent, elevated discourse - if we were all white male free-market Republicans?  Perhaps so.  That's a hell of a price to pay for soaring prose.

On to Philip Furia and his biography of Johnny Mercer...

Johnny Mercer (1909-1976) had a way with words, but not elevated words - just common words for basic emotions.  He is the lyricist who wrote the words to such standards as "That Old Black Magic," "Dream," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "And I Thought About You," "Blues in the Night," "Too Marvelous for Words," "Moon River," and "Laura," among many, many others.   He was also one of the founders of Capitol Records, a company that defined "class" in popular music from the forties to the sixties, with such singers as Nat Cole, Margaret Whiting and Frank Sinatra.  Well, that was "class" back then.

Furia titles his book Skylark, but for those of us who play a bit, we don't remember the lyrics so much as we remember the underlying Hoagy Carmichael song - a great melody, an intricate structure and a damned near impossible bridge with startling chord changes. 
Well, Mercer worked with composers like Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Arlen.  Big guns.  A native of Savannah, Georgia, Mercer could write in a down-home Georgia black-dialect manner (at a time when dialect songs were still generally acceptable) or turn out witty Cole Porter kinds of stuff.   William Gavin, a reviewer from Toronto, writing of Mercer, puts it this way: "He often wrote in a style of monosyllabic sophistication, using small, ordinary words crafted exquisitely to create surprising, often lovely, unhackneyed images (e.g., '...sad as a gypsy serenading the moon...')."  McWhorter would not approve at all.

As for the "life" here, Gavin sums him up:
Sober, Mercer was a Southern gentleman of the old school: charming, courteous, generous with his time and money, a self-effacing man in a business filled with raging egos. Drunk (and it didn't take much to set him off), he was incredibly nasty, spewing vile insults at close friends (and his long-suffering wife). When he sobered up, he sent roses to his victims. From his drinking to his doomed romance with Judy Garland to his failure to succeed on Broadway, genial, likable Johnny Mercer always could find ways to make himself and others unhappy.
Oh well.  Listen to Frank Sinatra's recordings of "One For My Baby," "And I Thought About You" or "Day In, Day Out" and you will forgive Mercer all that.

Film: You CAN go home again...

Well, not the movies this time, but something quite interesting. 
If you miss the fifties - when life was simple and Ike was President, when we knew our real enemies, those godless communists, and when girls wore poodle skirts and guys wore letter sweaters - well, here's your chance to go back.  The trip is a bit pricey, but if you miss those innocent days of the Hollywood black list and movies like Reefer Madness and The Blob, well, you might want to check this out.
This is from the Los Angeles Times, November 2nd - so act fast!
Ozzie, Harriet's home for sale...
Ozzie and Harriet Nelson's longtime Hollywood home, which appeared weekly at the beginning of "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" on ABC in the 1950s, has been listed at $2.35 million.
The walled and gated, six-bedroom compound includes a pool, grassy area and pool house. The home, built in 1916, has been updated.
The sellers, who purchased the 5,200-square-foot house on a half acre about a year ago, are planning to move to a larger house. They had purchased the home from Ron Fair, president of A&M Records, who had lived there nearly 10 years.
The Nelsons lived in the home when their sons, David and Ricky, were growing up. Ozzie swam nearly every day. Harriett decorated the house in red and green. Ricky used the pool house as a recording studio. As a teenage heartthrob, he drew many female fans to the house, near the end of a now-quiet cul de sac.
Billy Rose of Westside Estate Agency, Beverly Hills, has the listing.

Music: The "Catalina" that is not an island but actually a jazz club...

A famous Los Angeles jazz club is moving.  That would be the Catalina Bar and Grill
Well, it's not such a big deal.  The old place? - 1640 North Cahuenga Boulevard here in Hollywood.  The new place? -  6725 Sunset Boulevard.  From my perspective, instead of being 2.15 miles from my front door, the club will now be 1.69 miles from my front door, one block east of Highland.
They close tonight, November 2nd, and open again at the new place on Thursday, the 6th. 
The club first opened on October 23, 1986 four years after I moved out here.  For the first few years I went there I thought the name of the club had something to do with the resort island, Catalina, twenty-six miles off the coast.  (See November 2, 2003 Photography.)  But the club was actually named for Catalina Popescu, the Romanian-born owner.  I met the woman once - a rather striking lady.  It seems back in the eighties she was following the advice of Buddy Colette (jazz folks know who that is) to open a restaurant with live music right in the middle of Hollywood.
Who appeared there?  Dizzie Gillespie, Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Ray Brown, Joe Williams, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, Ron Carter, Joe Henderson, Benny Carter, Tony Williams... the stars, and often the sub-stars.
Catalina Popescu says one often saw famous folks in the audience.  She lists Clint Eastwood, Howard Hesseman, Garret Morris, Cybil Sheppard, Ricardo Motalban, Della Reese, Dionne Warwick, Joe Pesci, Prince, Iman and David Bowie.  I didn't see any of them, but the music was always good, and the food just fine.
The best part is the new place has a patio, so it won't seem so dark and cramped, and it has parking in a secure, covered structure, so you'll have all your car windows intact when you return to your vehicle.  Good.
On the other hand, aren't jazz clubs supposed to be dark, cramped and smoky?  Not in California.  We have really strict anti-smoking laws.  And the patio?  That's fine.  We don't have seasons here, only nuance.  Outdoors is almost always fine. 
If you're out this way, here's what comes next at the new place:
Thursday, November 6th through Sunday, November 9th    
Tuesday, November 11th through Sunday, November 16th   
GEORGE KAHN & FRIENDS, with: Abe Laboriel,
Eric Marienthal, Wayne Bergeron & Marvin "Smitty" Smith.
Monday, November 17th  
Tuesday, November 18th through Sunday, November 23rd   
Monday, November 24th   
Tuesday, November 25th through Wednesday, November 26th
Thursday, November 27th