A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

UC Berkeley lost one of its greatest teachers and the art world lost one of its greatest scholars when James Cahill, Professor Emeritus of the History of Art and former Chair of the Art History Department, died on Feb. 14 at age 87.
Cahill, who won both the prestigious Distinguished Teacher Award from Cal and the Distinguished Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing form the College Art Association, was highly regarded for his expertise in Asian art, especially Chinese art – not only in the west, but in China, too, where all of his books have been translated into Chinese.
"He treated us as if we were his colleagues, not his students," said Patricia Berger, who succeeded him as Chair of the Art History Department when he retired in 1995. "And as a lecturer, he was phenomenal. He'd come in with a handful of notes, which he never consulted, and deliver lectures that were coherent from beginning to end. He must have kissed the Blarney Stone."
He had a lack of pretentiousness that was utterly charming. Despite his worldwide fame, he insisted that everyone call him "Jim," not "Professor Cahill," and everyone dutifully complied – at least, to his face. Behind his back, they reverently called him "Professor Cahill" or "our sensei."
It's the old Zen paradox: The more he rejected the trappings of fame, the more they adored him for it.
Many universities tried unsuccessfully to lure him away. Harvard offered him its most prestigious chair, a University Fellowship, which is widely regarded as the pinnacle of the academic profession. But he turned it down, the first person to do so since Galileo.
"I didn't want to leave Berkeley," he explained to me a few years ago. "I like the way the university and the community interconnect. For some people, that's what's wrong about Berkeley. But for me, it's what's right."
Cahill was not only a great scholar, he was a great collector. Most of his collection of Chinese paintings – one of the finest private collections in the world – has been donated to the University Art Museum. He also collected rare phonograph records, which he played on his weekly radio show on KPFA.
But the collection I'd give my right arm for is something I'd seen in reproductions but never before in original form – his complete collection of early, pre-Alfred E. Neuman Mad Magazines, the ones in comic book format. (My favorites are "Superduperman" and "Batboy and Reuben.")
As modest as he was about his accomplishments, he was extremely proud of his children. His eldest son, Nick, is Professor of Art History at Wisconsin and senior archaeologist at the dig at Sardis in western Turkey, where he and his team are unearthing the palace of King Croesus of Lydia.
His daughter, Sarah, a concert pianist specializing in new American music and the American experimental tradition, has had works composed for her by such luminaries as John Adams and Terry Riley.
He also leaves two college age sons: Ben, a chemistry major at Cal, and Julian, a film student at NYU. And all four kids have inherited his independent spirit.
"My father was an advocate for lesser known, out-of-the-mainstream artists, and that's what I do with my music, too," says Sarah. "So I'm carrying on his tradition in my own way."

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

All That Jazz

Call me naïve, but it's always a disappointment for me whenever I find out that artists can be just as prejudiced as the rest of us.
Take jazz. I love it, but the world of jazz is a male chauvinist pigsty. If you're a woman, it's almost impossible to find a decent job or decent bookings.
A typical case is the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. In has never had a fulltime woman member since its founding in 1988.
It has never held auditions, either. Marsalis asks the section leaders who they like and makes the choice himself. It's an old boy network.
And the same is true for the country's other big bands, including the Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington "ghost" bands. No women wanted.
Unless you're a vocalist, of course. "Chick singers" have always been able to find work, as long as they're pretty. The stories are legion about how hard it was for Ella Fitzgerald to get a job starting out because she was thought to be missing in the looks department.
But there are encouraging signs locally, thanks to five amazing musicians: pianist Susan Muscarella, founder and executive director of the Jazzschool in Berkeley, trumpeter Ellen Seeling and saxophonist Jean Fineberg, director and assistant director of the Montclair Women's Big Band; trombonist Sarah Cline, director of the award-winning Berkeley High Jazz Program; and bassist Ariane Cap, founder of Step Up Music in Vallejo.
They're all longtime friends and collaborators. Cline and Cap play in the Montclair Big Band, Seeling and Fineberg teach at the Jazzschool, and they all teach at the annual JazzGirls Day that Cline holds at Berkeley High and the annual Jazzschool Girls' Jazz and Blues Camp and the Women's Jazz & Blues Camp, both of which which Fineberg and Seeling direct.
Individually and together, they are empowering women and girls to play the music that I consider America's greatest cultural contribution to the world.
The Women's Jazz & Blues Camp is coming up March 24-28 at the Jazzschool, with an all-female faculty teaching jazz, blues, R&B, Latin and vocal combos, in addition to electives such as percussion, theory/improv, vocal workshops, private consultations and instrumental master classes.
If you've always harbored an interest in jazz but have been told that women aren't good enough to play it, you'll find out differently at this camp. To register, log on to jazzschool.org/womensreg or call 510-845-5373.
By the way, the Jazzschool isn't going to be called the Jazzschool anymore. It has just received accreditation by the National Schools of Music, which means it can now offer a four-year Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies. To celebrate its new status, the school will now be known as the California Jazz Conservatory. Congratulations to Muscarella, who conceived, created and nurtured this school into what it is today.
And if you're game for a little political action, Seeling is organizing a protest rally at 5 p.m. on March 22 at the San Francisco Jazz Center, 201 Franklin Street in San Francisco, where the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is playing a four-day stint.
She and her cohorts want Marsalis to hold blind auditions, with the musician behind a curtain so the judges can't determine the gender.
Sounds reasonable to me. How about you?