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Can we still expect a Renaissance?


The moon descended
And I found with the break of dawn
You and the song had gone
But the melody lingers on

From the lyrics of the 1927 song by Irving Berlin

AKB48 - Japan's most popular group of supposedly
cute girls

Members of The Hot Club of Cowtown - From left:
Whit Smith, Elana James and Jake Irwin
I owe him my life. As I told my audience in the fall of 2011, DK offered me a donation of 700,000 yen over a ten-month period, when I was about to have to hang myself. Then, two months ago, he lent me 140,000 yen when I was on the verge of going homeless because of the absurd Japanese custom that requires the lessee of an apartment to pay a "renewal fee" to the real estate agent every second year.

Now I am repaying the debt in two or three installments because I know DK is not deep-pocketed enough to save two lives for two years in a row. He is an IT engineer who is 6, 7 years younger than my biological sons.

We are in the middle of the holiday-studded Golden Week. Yesterday morning, he called me up to invite me to lunch. He had just returned from Seoul where he spent his well-deserved vacation with his wife and 6-year-old son. The moment DK saw me at the restaurant, he grinned and said, "Now your beard is so bushy that you can pass as Marx." He knows I respect Karl Marx as a non-Marxist. I said, "Thanks, but I think I look more like Johannes Brahms." He had brought me a lot of souvenirs from South Korea - packs of cigarettes, a dozen paper bags containing "corn tea," etc. The last item he took out of the bottom of the grocery bag was a big nail-clipper shaped like a pair of pliers. He explained: "This is from Tokyo, not Seoul." He knows how hard I have to struggle when trimming my toenails because of the rigidity of the body particular to a sufferer of Parkinsonism. He had done the work for me a couple of times before.

For the first 30 minutes or so, he told me how his family had enjoyed the vacation. Then we switched the subject to our favorite topic: music. For the subsequent two hours, we discussed how William Byrd, Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Johann Jacob Froberger, Christopher Gibbons, Johann Pachelbel, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Johann Krieger, Henry Purcell, et al. possibly influenced Johann Sebastian Bach, and how Bach, in turn, influenced the likes of Paul Hindemith and Dmitri Shostakovich. DK didn't receive any formal education in a higher-learning institute, either in music or any other discipline, because of his unfortunate upbringing. It's all the more remarkable that he is so conversant with the history of classical music. He added that his son is currently learning a canon by Bach from his piano teacher while his dad is practicing Pachelbel's fugue all by himself.

Then we moved over to the nearby Yokohama Park, where a ballpark named Yokohama Stadium is located. As soon as we sat down at the edge of a flowerbed, DK produced a smartphone manufactured by Samsung under an OEM agreement with NTT Docomo. He wanted to let me hear some of the musical pieces he had mentioned at the restaurant. Every YouTube video he showed me was very interesting, but especially it was a pleasant surprise when I heard an unmistakable seed of bebop improvisation in Sweelinck's Fantasia played by Glenn Gould. The Dutch composer wrote the piece almost 400 years ago, I guess.

As I wrote in my previous post under the title of What art is - and isn't, music made my life really worth living and is now making the last days of my life more tolerable than without it. Now I've grown too old to play, dance or sing. And yet, listening to good music always brings me back the memories of the finest moments of my life. But when it comes to exchanging views with someone, DK is practically the only male friend who can tell music or any other form of art from its excrement. Immanuel Kant said art is something that is purposive in itself. But the Japanese have always dealt with art as something that serves other purposes in the last one and a half century. Now everything Japanese "musicians" do is Gebrauchsmusik. You can't remove impurities from Japanese art because there's nothing else in it. This inversion of the end and the means has turned this country into a cultural wasteland with its music scenes looking more and more like a junkyard.

Take AKB48, for example. It's amazing that people talk about the group like they talk about musicians, while it has absolutely nothing to do with music or any other art form. Each member of the group belongs to one of those Geino Purodakushon (talent agencies) affiliated, overtly or covertly, and in one way or the other, with yakuza syndicates. She is a cash cow for her Purodakushon not because she has an irreplaceable talent but because she is capable of arousing sexual desire in Rorikon (pedophilic) audience. As you may already know, most Japanese men have a strong bent for sexual perversion, such as lingerie theft, voyeurism and sexual abuse of children.

The Anti-prostitution Act of 1956 has made subtly legitimized and highly institutionalized prostitution the most lucrative business for yakuza. And that is why they are focusing more and more on exploitation of these poor kids with the help of NHK and other media organizations. Unlike in South Korea's show business, these girls may not be selling sex in the open, but they are substitutes for prostitutes, at best, if you can see what I mean. As a French journalist once observed, "they are prostitutes who don't think they are prostitutes."

Unfortunately, more or less the same thing is happening in the U.S. I think it all started around the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted. At least we can trace the decline of music as an art form to the Woodstock concert of 1969. A conspiracy theorist named Dave McGowan theorizes that music started to serve other purposes in Laurel Canyon several years before Woodstock. McGowam says: "Hippies came out of nowhere and sort of co-opted it. I think it was quite deliberate...they wanted to give the anti-war movement a face that would be completely unacceptable to mainstream America." But I don't think chronological or geographical accuracy is that important. Those who politicize everything like him always insist things such as Alice Cooper said this and Frank Zappa did that make a lot of difference. But I don't think so. It's not these apes, but ordinary people that have destroyed the American culture.

McGowan should have seen Carol Reed's The Third Man if he had enough time to waste delving into the Laurel Canyon conspiracy. In the 1949 film, Orson Welles acting as Harry Lime ridicules the Swiss people at large in the famous cuckoo clock speech that goes: "You know what the fellow said - in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." The lesson to be learned here is that the cultural climate of a politically corrupt nation is not that sterile, although the opposite can never be true. In a cultural wasteland, the dead-end situation facing the political regime is inevitably perpetuated.

I'd thought the decline of the American culture was unstoppable and irreversible until I came across the Hot Club of Cowtown, a Western swing band based in Austin, Texas. (See videos embedded below.) As I wrote, I'm inclined to call it a "zero-impurity" music because genuine spontaneity is what their music is all about. But don't take me wrong. I'm not talking about the undisciplined, raw "spontaneity" these noble savages have been demonstrating since the '60s. In an interview, Elana James, the fiddler and singer, names some of the artists who have influenced her, that include Anne-Sophie Mutter, Bob Wills, Johnny Gimble, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and Stephane Grappelli. This tells that she had to study very hard the techniques and the idioms of every genre of traditional music before acquiring her breathtakingly thrilling virtuosity and inventiveness. That's what I mean by the words genuine spontaneity.

Time and again I have quoted the 1988 NYT article written by Wynton Marsalis, who is known as a "purist." But it should be noted that the purist has never underplayed the significance of the traditions of other cultural spheres such as Latin America. In another paragraph of the article, he wrote: "It's like a great French chef lending his name, not his skills, to a a fast-food restaurant because he knows it's a popular place to eat. His concern is for quantity, not quality. Those who are duped say 'This greasy hamburger sure is good; I know it's good, because Pierre says it's good, and people named Pierre know what the deal is.' Pierre then becomes known as a man of the people, when he actually is exploiting the people." All in all, Marsalis wanted to say the ''they all can sing, they all have rhythm'' syndrome and the "why should I subject myself to the pain of study?" kind of attitude widespread in America's music scenes are what's going to devour jazz. The same applies to every genre of art.

Against this backdrop, it looks like a miracle that the Hot Club of Cowtown still shows both spontaneity and discipline. None of their videos, except those of country classics presented in the traditional format, have been viewed more than 10 thousand times. But it should come as no surprise if we see the Renaissance of the American music started in Austin. I'm not sure, though, if this will come true. How can I know when even Elana James, et al. can't tell what comes out of their own music? To begin with, you won't notice it right away when a Great Cultural Revolution breaks out.

If you carefully listen to good music like theirs, you can visualize how the civilization of apes branched out into man's civilization, like when you carefully look at the paintings in the Altamira Cave. A sea change is only caused by man's innate spontaneity, which is what French philosopher Henri Bergson called Free Will. It's ridiculous to believe someone deliberately changed America as McGowan insists, because almost by definition, man is an un-manipulatable creature. I suspect that the conspiracy theorist is talking about his fellow apes.


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Can we still expect a Renaissance?
Authored by: samwidge on Saturday, May 04 2013 @ 09:46 AM JST

I note that you tell the story of a gift of friendship and talk about music all in the same essay. A friendship is a melody and every melody is a remarkable gift. That's for sure.

As a former radio announcer, one who served also as a disk-jockey, I can attest to the value of this connection.

This post and your examples got me drifting off to hundreds of other music forms. There are many kinds of music that we'll never hear again. Every one is marked by its kindness, the giving, the sharing and the sincere love represented by the effort that making music requires.

Society expunges much of the best so that we will be forced to execute new joys and again experience giving as well as receiving. I am reminded of a Peter De Rose song that is heard no more. You can't buy a copy and it cannot be found on YouTube. It is expelled from the modern scene only for its name, "Pickaninny Dreams." The word, pickaninny, simply means a black child and somehow is presumed to speak ill of black people. Pickaninny Dreams was written by a black man and extols the virtues of mother and child. Unfortunately, someone will be angered by my mention of this marvelous tune.

Pickaninny Dreams is just as fine a song as Mr. De Rose's overwhelmingly popular "Deep Purple." My family owns one of the very last existing copies of the sheet music but I am too poor a musician to play it properly for you.

Mankind casts out some of its best only to replace with hopeful squalls. Very little of real excellence like Hot Club of Cowtown comes around. When it does, we are well-advised to share as you do.

As a radio announcer I can assure that there are many forms of entertainment that thrill some people and gouge others. It seems that nobody can agree on whatever is best.

I am especially impressed to find people looking for lost melodies and lost music methods to revive. Where I live we have the Bitterroot Valley Ragtime Society, a group that meets monthly to play excellent piano. Here are some of my friends in that group playing;

We also have the Montana A Capella Society, another group of amateurs who innocently share the gift of music. An example may be heard at

This kind of music is shared in the same spirit of your son's band at I am in awe!

Like you, I like most everything and everyone. But not so many like the same things that we do. As people advance through life, their metabolism changes, the speed of their thinking, the pulse of their blood, the suppleness of their eardrums. At each stage of life, we seem to cling to certain kinds of music and exclude all others.

It would be a horrid world if we all liked the same thing. We would stop exploring. We would stop finding ways to make new friends.
Can we still expect a Renaissance?
Authored by: Y.Yamamoto on Saturday, May 04 2013 @ 06:31 PM JST

Very intriguing as well as informative,

I’ve always been impressed by your impartial way of talking about music. It’s understandable because in the good old days, a DJ must have thought this way: “Gee, my audience like heavy metal, but I like easy listening jazz. I got wedged. OK, let’s play both.” But things have changed completely since the emergence of iPod, YouTube and smartphones. I have no car, no iPod, no smartphone, no nothing, in part because I can’t afford them, but more importantly, because I don’t need them. But people who are equipped with them listen to heavy metal if it’s their type of music. Now DJs are an endangered species, no matter whether they like heavy metal or easy listening stuff. They will soon be out of work.

If I had been a DJ when I was young, I might still think in the same way as you do. But actually my way of thinking is 180-degrees different from yours. There is a woman who does alto saxophone and emceeing in my son’s band. From time to time, we exchange mails to discuss jazz. She once quoted Duke Ellington as saying: “People think there are many different types of music, but they are wrong. There are only two types: Good Music and Bad Music.” I haven’t double-checked the source to find out if Ellington actually said so, but I think if he did, he was absolutely right. And Wynton Marsalis, the “purist,” wrote as I already quoted in this essay: “"That myth [about the innate ability of early jazz musicians] is being perpetuated to this day by those who profess an openness to everything - an openness that in effect just shows contempt for the basic values of the music and our society. If everything is good, why should anyone subject himself to the pain of study? Their disdain for the specific knowledge that goes into jazz creation is their justification for saying everything has its place.” I think he is also right. These are the reasons I want to be fussy about music, no matter whether you call it a prejudice. Moreover, I think it’s very important for musicians, critics and other music lovers to distinguish music from crap.

It’s a different issue, though, what criteria to use when separating good music from crap. On the assumption that now you are having to depart slowly from the DJ mentality, I am anxious to know what criteria you will use in appreciating or not appreciating music. As I’ve already said many times, mine is “Disciplined Spontaneity.” All Japanese people, except “DK,” are of the opinion that it’s useless to discuss music because it's just “a matter of taste.” They all assume the self-deceptive attitude toward music that Marsalis would call a “false openness that in effect shows contempt for the basic values of the music and our society.”

I looked at the video of the Bitterroot Valley Ragtime Society. To be honest with you, I didn’t like it. These players all look too tired to enjoy music, or any other thing for that matter.

As to “Pickaninny Dreams” I want you to clarify which one composed it, Peter DeRose or “a black man.” As you may know, Deep Purple is one of my favorite songs. You said you couldn’t find a Pickaninny video on YouTube, but I suspect you overlooked this one. If this is the Pickaninny stuff you mention, I don’t like it, either. Of course, it’s inconceivable that DeRose wrote such an unimpressive song.

I love music from the past, be it Bach or DeRose, but now I’m looking around for contemporary numbers or contemporary arrangements of old numbers played by our contemporaries like The Hot Club of Cowtown, because I’ve already had enough of the past, e.g. Sinatra. Fitzgerald, etc., etc.

Yu Yamamoto
Can we still expect a Renaissance?
Authored by: samwidge on Sunday, May 05 2013 @ 12:38 AM JST

You found Picaninny Dreams! I am delighted. Thank you for that.

It is not played correctly in this version but that is the melody that my father sang in 1925. It should not be a difficult song to play but I have not heard it done with feeling or at the right pace. Years ago my very elderly piano teacher performed it well and one of my aunts played it well.

You seem to be saying that Peter De Rose was not a black man. I was told that he was but I could easily be wrong. His compositions are remarkable any way we count them.

One day I will play the only part of the tune I seem to be able to play correctly and put it on YouTube for you.

You said that you did not enjoy the video of the Bitterroot Valley Ragtime Society. That is reasonable. The members of the society are elderly and trying their best to maintain the excitement for their own favorite music. The equipment used to record them is poor. Worse than that; The piano is not in tune or up to pitch. It is the best they can do and they enjoy doing it.

Perhaps this is where I have not stated myself well. Certainly excellence in music is important. But if the musician is only a person born with great talent and one who works at music and nothing else, well then, they get some of my respect. Those are the Sinatras and the Liberaces. They are good musicians.

On the other hand, the musicians I enjoy most are those who raise families and run businesses. I appreciate their colossal effort. I admire how much they want to succeed at everything, not just music. I like musicians I can meet.

This is why I enjoy The Hot Club of Cowtown. Those people appear to be amateurs sharing something they want to share. They are folks like me (though far more able).

My father's favorite recording artist was Buddy Clark, Dad said that Mr. Clark sang every song as though he were singing for himself -- It wasn't just a job. It wasn't merely a way to make a living. His singing seemed to carry the happiness of a three-year-old singing to a puppy. His music was joy for its own sake.

I suspect that you and I agree that few entertainers today achieve that "joy for its own sake" kind of sound. Hot Club of Cowtown has much of that. The members of this team seem to be playing for the joy of playing. They are not phony.

When I try to play the piano, I play for this same reason. When the old ladies drop by to say that they like it, I am pleased. But I play for myself.

I have heard you play the organ and my impression is that you play for the same reason. Joy is a good goal.

Can we still expect a Renaissance?
Authored by: Y.Yamamoto on Sunday, May 05 2013 @ 03:47 AM JST

This doesn't really matter, but looking at his pictures, I can tell for sure DeRose is a white. I didn't know Pickanniny Dreams Waltz was your cradle song. It was imprinted into your memory. Now I look forward to watching your video because I have nothing against privately sharing a musical piece in which I don't particularly see an artistic value.

Bitterroot Valley Ragtime Society is a different story. As I said, these gentlemen look (and sound) too tired to enjoy music and life. I want to hear something that really exhilarates me because I am also old, sick and tired like them. This lady was 88-years-old when the video was uploaded in 2007.

Perhaps in the next post, I will talk about traditions more in-depth. I do love traditional things. But as I said, times have changed with the emergence of the Internet, YouTube, iPod, smartphones, etc. Now young people can enjoy their types of music, anytime and anywhere, without tuning in to the radio. So my concern is whether the traditions are still alive in their types of music. I'm afraid that is not the case with Alice Cooper, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, and the like. That means now traditions are all for museums and nursing homes. Simply, they are dying, because of the absence of spontaneity in the music for the young, or the lack of discipline in their spontaneity.

Yu Yamamoto
Can we still expect a Renaissance?
Authored by: samwidge on Sunday, May 05 2013 @ 09:12 AM JST
I suppose that you are right in all these things. We seem to be dividing the entertainment world into two camps; That which pleases and that which is popular.

In my mind, this is where jazz stands out. Jazz must tickle the minds of thinking individuals but jazz also must gain an audience of significant size.