Jim Thorpe -All American (1951)
Director: Michael Curtiz
Main Cast: Burt Lancaster, Charles Bickford, Jim Thorpe
On the one hand, this film admirably portrays the life of a native american. On the other hand, it is highly problematic. There are some decent acting performances, but the score is tedious Hollywood pap. The script is the biggest problem. First of all, it is not very historically accurate, sacrificing facts to develop melodramatic plot points. But the worst thing about it is that the story is designed to emphasize personal failings to diminish the nagging problem of racism. Now, the film does address racism. But it is brought up only as a “strawman” to be knocked down in favor of a formulaic personal struggle narrative arc. It presents Thorpe’s life as one of him being too emotionally weak to succeed (in the face of racism, personal tragedies). To draw an analogy, this is premised on the Louis Armstrong model — a great individual can overcome all institutional and social obstacles (racism) just by being personally talented enough in ways that are non-threatening to social power structures. The real-life Jim Thorpe was subject to a level of discrimination well beyond anything depicted in the film, and it would have been much better if it addressed that (and had a better score).
Miles Davis – Nefertiti Columbia CS 9594 (1968)
The title track here represents just about the peak of Miles’ second great quintet. With Miles and Wayne Shorter playing a weary melody at a rather slow tempo, Tony Williams punctuates the song with sudden, quick fills and accents that seem to transform the entire song into a sketch of something great and elusive, beyond the ennui suggested by the horns. Miles and Shorter mostly play the same melodic line over and over and over again, shifting registers and shifting harmonics in a way that tends toward the dissonant and existential. Herbie Hancock‘s accompaniment is perfectly spare, appearing as if out of nowhere to play exactly and only the right notes. Ron Carter on bass is active and unmoored from any sort of role as a mere timekeeper in the rhythm section. There is a looseness to the performance, clearly influenced by the free jazz movement, but still bounded and organized. Most significantly, the structure mediates the interactions of the players so that the lines between open (free) improvisation and pre-written composition blur, and all the players seem to have an equal –if still varied — role. It’s a magnificent recording. I have never completely warmed up to the album as a whole, mostly because of the songwriting featured in the latter part of the album, but I can’t deny this is a great offering. To get a complete picture of Miles and his many groups, you’ll need investigate Nefertiti at some point, but Miles Smiles and E.S.P. should perhaps be investigated first.
Walter Scheidel – The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press 2017)
Ah, more liberal-conservative historical drivel. Scheidel’s book follows in the ignoble footsteps of Steven Pinker‘s moronic The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff‘s discredited This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. That is to say it sidesteps and obscures crucial philosophical and ideological (and moral) questions in favor of lots and lots of quantitative data, analyzed with dubious methodologies.
I didn’t actually read this book. What I did do is a litmus test. I looked up anything about the Bolshevik revolution in the index, and read those pages. Scheidel cites Niall Ferguson (!!!!) primarily, and, in much the same way soviet history scholar Moshe Lewin has eloquently described regarding similar writings, engages in the lowest kind of anti-communist propaganda by singling out isolated incidents stripped of context and presenting them as representative.
Fortunately there is a book that already existed to (premptively) rebut Scheidel’s: War and Revolution: Rethinking the 20th Century, by Domenico Losurdo, which aimed to offer a “vigorous riposte” to “imperial revivalists”. The aim of Scheidel and his ilk is to assert that “there is no alternative” to inequality, and anything that redresses inequality (i.e., relvoution) cannot be contemplated. But why can’t it be contemplated? Scheidel does not engage this question in any serious way. But that is his aim: to bracket that question out of consideration and normalize the “structural violence” of actually-existing inequality, by lamenting it from a distance but taking any pragmatic solutions to it off the table. He is not concerned with the horrors of the status quo, only the alleged horrors that accompany any change of the status quo. To put it more bluntly, The Great Leveler is nothing but an apology for the status quo.
Take the opportunity to make a hard pass on Scheidel’s book and perhaps instead look to something by Losurdo.
Link to the painting by Shimamoto Shozo:
Miles Davis – Milestones…… Columbia CL 1193 (1958)
This is an album I never quite understood, at least until recently. Future Davis sideman Tony Williams loved it; I think he said it was a favorite. Others love it too. But why? For the most part, it’s fairly straightforward hard bop. I guess, in retrospect, the late 1950s weren’t exactly a fertile time for jazz music (other than for the likes of Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, that is, none of whom achieved any meaningful commercial success). It was generally a low point. Sure, there were some good albums that appeared at that time, but most players were still milking either hard bop or cool styles for all they were worth. The free players who hit big in the sixties either hadn’t fully developed their styles yet, or, more importantly, hadn’t found many recording or performance opportunities yet. Coltrane is here. Yet Coltrane was a good but unremarkable player in Davis’ first great quintet. He is starting to show signs of what he achieved on early albums like Giant Steps, but it was a few years after Milestones that Coltrane really became Coltrane.
What occurred to me recently was that this album represents and complacency and bourgeois aspirations of Miles and his associates. While the rollicking “Two Bass Hit” features a fun and playful riff, most of the material here relies on up-tempo rhythms to mask simplistic and thin ideas. Above all this music presents itself as the pinnacle of something — rather than, as history would later prove it to be, an anachronistic holdover from the be-bop era, sustained only by the suppression of the likes of Ornette Coleman. Put another way, this music presents a linear view of history as a linear march of progress in a particular direction, and obscures how it really is music that participates in a system of institutional/tribal power hierarchies. When Miles landed at Columbia Records, he was merely promoted within a fixed universe of possibilities. To put this criticism in a more substantive context, this is music still clinging to the model of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker, in which a black man like Miles was trying to prove himself to be talented, within an established institutional framework, whereas in the future, after the legal end of the Jim Crow era in America, there would be a great recognition that individual accomplishment within the existing system wasn’t enough — the whole system needed to be changed. Of course, eventually Miles got bored with this, and his boredom led to much better things that did challenge the whole system.
Miles Davis – ‘Round About Midnight Columbia CL 949 (1957)
Miles’ first album for Columbia Records is a winner. While not quite as inspired as his last recordings for Prestige, which included excellent Cookin’, Relaxin’ and Workin’ discs and for contractual reasons were released only later, this is a mere step behind them, and benefits from more high fidelity recording technology. The great benefit of the Prestige sessions is that they sound like those of a band that has nothing to lose and everything to gain from superb, heartfelt performances that follow their own muse. By contrast, ‘Round About Midnight sound more like the work of a talented band seeking to prove that the performers are worthy of the “big time”, so they show more deference. Anyway, this remains a very worthy collection of hard bop jazz — and album jacket covers hardly get cooler than this one.