Shameless plug

Because it’s my birthday today, I’m taking a reprieve from writing something snarky or substantive, and will instead fill the void with something far less time consuming: a shameless plug.

Tomorrow night (that is, Thursday, Jan. 20), several members of the student project team that were instrumental in editing and authoring Music at the Crossroads: Lives and Legacies of Baltimore Jazz, will be presenting at a Baltimore History Evening, to be held at the Village Learning Place (2521 St. Paul Street), beginning at 7:30 p.m.

Music at the Crossroads is THE definitive, comprehensive history of jazz music in Baltimore City. The book, co-edited by eight Loyola University Maryland students, traces Baltimore’s long jazz heritage, from the hey-days of such greats as pianist Eubie Blake, drummer Chick Webb, and vocalists Cab Calloway and Billie Holiday, right up to more recent times, from the ascendancy and peak (and demise) of the Left Bank Jazz Society, to the rise of Baltimore-bred “boppers” Gary Bartz and Cyrus Chestnut.

I authored the book’s final chapter, titled “Hard Times for Hard Bop: Charm City’s New Jazz Scene.” In it, I posit a few different interpretations as to why Baltimore’s jazz following has deteriorated (no, it’s not just because no one listens to jazz anymore), as well as how jazz music can still be supported and encouraged within Baltimore. Tomorrow night at the Village Learning Place, I’ll be speaking to the content of that chapter.

So if you are looking for something to do tomorrow night before your Thursday night turns into your Thirsty Thursday night, head down to Baltimore’s Village Learning Place at 7:30 p.m.

A new kind of resolution

Normally I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, as they invariably become too much of an effort to think about, and an even greater effort to implement. I haven’t been to a gym in three years, my finances are still out of order, I’m nowhere near caught up with all the reading I’d like to do, and I don’t smile more. (Or ever.)

Point is, this year I’m trying something new, and I’ve enlisted the help of a fellow Loyola University Maryland senior: Paul “Houston” Waterman, better known as DJ Paul Waterman to, well, I guess most people.

See, my iPod contains mostly dated rock music and jazz standards, songs and tunes that no one listens to anyway, and an entire playlist of “Ghetto Booty” songs—the “hippity hop” musical banter my grandparents wish didn’t exist. Which means, of course, that the one food group missing from this musical smorgasbord is techno, seasoned with a bit of over-amplified bass notes and strobe-light use that borders on epilepsy (and demagoguery).

I know nothing about techno. But DJ Paul Waterman does. I asked him for some recommendations. Here’s what he gave me:

Techno according to DJ Paul Waterman

When it comes to language, any attempt to describe music must be accomplished through analogy. This is especially important when the music in question is of the instrumental variety, where the nasal whine of Rihanna or Bieber’s pubescent squeak aren’t there to orient our minds, hearts, and sex organs. That having been said, the list below is a canvas of human emotional response, and should be spoken of only with the reverential, terrifying language of religious prophecy: Rapture. Lust. Wrath. Contempt. You name it.

These are, in the words of occultist Grant Morrison, “BIG IDEAS.” So proceed with caution. Here there be monsters.

1. Felix Cartal– “Montreal Dreams”

2. Sub Focus– “Could this be Real”

3. Congorock– “Babylon”

4. Petersky– “Kurs Zjazdowy”

5. Deadmau5– “Sofi Needs a Ladder”

Lastly, these songs can be purchased from Amazon or If you instead decide to pirate them, or bookmark them on YouTube, I will hunt you down with the zealous conviction of Inquisitor Torquemada.

The mind of a madman

“Perhaps this is a man you don’t really understand either.”

Alfred says it. When he’s speaking to Master Wayne (Batman) in the middle of The Dark Knight, as Michael Caine’s and Christian Bale’s respective characters seek some understanding of or motivation behind The Joker’s acts of terror around Gotham City. What Alfred says next is more important, and, considering The Joker’s eventual burning an entire mountain of money, his lines are both profound and prophetic:

“Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just wanna watch the world burn.”

The assertion, when it sits with you, is terrifying. It demands us to stare the abstract notion of Evil between the eyes, to grapple with its many manifestations, and our many misunderstandings, misperceptions, and misconceptions of it.

As a nation, we do this collectively, primarily when such events as Saturday’s shooting in Tucson happen. We grope for meaning, for some semblance of control. When the unfathomable, but certainly not unimaginable, happens, the sole solace for troubled souls is to find meaning, identify the problem, lay blame, and then propose and derive solutions.

And indeed, our country’s political discourse, rhetoric, incessant verbal ping-ponging in a ceaseless jockeying for political points and votes—whatever you’d like to call it—is toxic, unproductive, willfully ignorant, seemingly uneducated, gastrointestinal-Why-the-hell-did-I-order-the-Guy’s Triple D-at-Chaps-again?-virus inducing—again, whatever you’d like to call it.

And, yes, that conversation about eliminationist and unproductive rhetoric is one we should have. But it is a separate conversation. Because political discourse did not drive the mind of a madman to open fire Saturday. Political discourse did not kill six people.*

I admit my prejudices freely: I read George Will’s column much more eagerly than I read Paul Krugman’s. And, certainly, more evidence pertaining to Saturday’s murders is unsurfaced daily. But if we know anything for certain now—and even this is still unclear—it is that Jared Loughner was seriously mentally disturbed, and no one said anything. People knew, apparently. His professor at community college. His classmates. They claimed to have a sinking, guttural feeling that one day they would turn around and see Loughner, gun in hand, ready to unload on them. That Loughner had been getting weird as early as 2007. If anything, we know for certain that intervention was necessary. That mental health, like physical, bodily health, is something not to be taken lightly, or ridiculed, or shrugged off.

I empathize with a country’s needing to find the reason why. What paralyzes so many is not just the senselessness of the violence, but also the senselessness—the irrationality—motivating the mind behind the handgun.

But finding a scapegoat, demonizing a group, and preemptively adjudicating blame without substantive evidence is easy. The more difficult task—what takes real courage—is coming to Alfred’s assessment of the world, which, far too often, contains people we really don’t understand, either.

*I’d like to direct readers of this post to the excellent words spoken by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show Monday night. His remarks were cogent, thoughtful, and delivered well. A small sample, here:

“How do you make sense of these types of senseless situations . . . and I don’t know that there is a way to make sense of this sort of thing. Did the toxic political environment cause this? A graphic image here, an ill-timed comment, violent rhetoric, those types of things—I have no f–king idea.

We live in a complex ecosystem of influences and motivations and I wouldn’t blame our political rhetoric any more than I would blame heavy metal music for Columbine. . . .

Boy would it be nice to be able to draw a straight line of causation from this horror to something tangible, because then we could convince ourselves that if we just stop this, the horrors will end.”

‘Distort them as you please’

In May I graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, a rather innocuous confession of little circumstance outside of the fact that, through my coursework, I have been exposed to the thinking of some of the world’s greatest literary minds. Marlowe. Shakespeare. Milton. T.S. Eliot. Langston Hughes. Hurston. James Baldwin.

And as an English major, the reading of great writing becomes a revelatory experience, one in which you slowly discover that the words chosen to express ideas are as important as—if not more important than—the subject matters of the texts. You develop an appreciation for writing as an exercise of precision and concision: the magnitude of Hughes’ assertion, “I, too, am America”; the spine-tingling conundrum cloaked in brevity when Shakespeare writes, “To be, or not to be”; the appreciation for those who have come before in Eliot’s penning, “April is the cruelest month.”

Indeed, what you gain is a real sense of what George Orwell reviled, what he was expressing in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Specifically, that political language is purposely obtuse and vague to deceive and swindle; more broadly, that writing and language put forth in the name of elucidating truth, or speaking something more “properly,” does more to hide truth than adequately express it.

So when an Alabama-based publisher thinks it adequate to replace the word “nigger” with “slave” in Mark Twain’s novel, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the only word that comes to mind, and a rather apt one at that, is Orwellian.

For as many people who think that the replacing of “nigger” in Twain’s text is a good decision, one which will allow the book to be taught once again in high school classrooms without cringing, or timidity, or anger, I believe myself safe in assuming that there are a great deal of people out there—English majors and non-majors alike—who think replacing the word in Twain’s novel is nothing more than sanitization at best, and willing ignorance at worst.

Because what do we do when we remove that word? We remove an emotion, a potent representation of a history of a group of American people whose legacy includes more than 200 years of slavery on U.S. soil, and another 100 years of race-based discrimination, segregation, and intimidation via inhumane Jim Crow legislation. As a white person, I willingly say to myself that the word “nigger” did not exist; that Mark Twain knew nothing of its existence; and that some sort of equivocation exists between the objective term, “slave,” and the debasing and degrading term, “nigger.”

Beyond that, we fool ourselves. We fool ourselves into thinking that we control the historical record, and that we can correct past wrongs to make sure little Johnny in the 10th grade doesn’t have to learn why black people used to be called “niggers,” and why some white people today continue to call black people “niggers.” We fool ourselves into thinking that true enlightenment comes at the hands of people who, in the name of protecting us, of educating us, actually stifle, stump, and slow our intellectual maturation and growth. We fool ourselves into believing that simple word changes can mask attitudes and feelings.

As a college student, I immediately call into question the value of the degree I will receive in May. Not because I dislike my school, or because I think my coursework is meaningless. Rather, it is because I wonder how I will tolerate an American society that believes it can cover language with a baby blanket, and assume I will still derive the same meaning from choice words.

No. Changing each instance of the word “nigger” to “slave” in Twain’s “Adventures of Huck Finn” will not make his work again teachable in high school classrooms. And if we think that is the solution, we might as well ask our students to turn off their brains instead.

After all—it’s not good to waste paper with meaningless words.