Pencils in the Air for Your Jazz Mid-Term

It’s Friday–the day I’ve been dreading for two weeks since bombing a pop quiz in Jazz 101 at Carl Yastrzemski State College. I got a D+ for mixing up Fats Navarro with Fats Waller and spacing out on “Where or When: Compare and contrast.” That means I’ve got to get at least an A- on the mid-term if I’m going to maintain the B average dad says I need if he’s going to keep me on “the gravy train.” “College bred means a four-year loaf,” he says with that sarcastic laugh of his. He’s always talking about food for some reason.

“If you knew how I loved you . . .”


The proctor goes up and down handing out the exam books, and I’m sweating bullets. Stay cool, I tell myself, like–I dunno–the Miles Davis Nonet? Hope that’s on the exam.

I pop the seal and open it up. Keep breathing, I tell myself, and don’t get hung up on questions you don’t understand. Do the easy ones first, just like on the SAT. I scan down the page, hoping to find some handhold that will get me started up the sheer rock face of my ignorance of America’s classical music.

Bingo–the first question is “How Long Has This Been Going On?” I know I know I know I say to myself, barely able to control my pencil as it races across the page. “There were chills . . . down my spine, and some thrills I can’t define,” I write. If you can’t answer the question completely, you’re allowed to say how you would research it using sources not available within the classroom.

Ethel Waters


Question #2: Why is there no sun up in the sky? Hmm—I seem to recall a jazz flash card about that age-old riddle. Wait–I know–Stormy Weather! That’s why there’s no sun up in the friggin’ sky! I scribble it down quickly–I may have a shot at an A!

R. Crumb jazz cards


Uh-oh–an essay question. “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” Shit. I’ve never been there. I tap my pencil against my head–ouch! I hit a sebaceous cyst I need to have removed, but the shock sets my synapses crackling. “Moonlight on the bayou–Creole tunes fill the air. I dream . . . of magnolias in June. Soon I’m wishin’ you were the-e-ere.” Not too original, but I do have the entire hockey team in my class–they should hold down the curve.

What’s next. “Have You Met Miss Jones?” Sure I have, uh, lots of them. Let’s see, what was it like? “And all at once I lost my breath–and all at once was scared to death–and all at once I own the earth and sky.” That oughta do it. Okay–one last question. “Lover man, oh where can you be?”

Billie Holiday


What kinda power trip is this professor on? I’m a guy. I shouldn’t have to answer a woman’s question! I gaze around the room, trying to find some inspiration. I see Valerie Dickman, the brunette who sits in the front row crossing her legs to improve her score in the class participation component of the final grade. She’s mouthing something to me. There . . . is . . . no . . . answer. It’s a trick question!

So the prof wants us to think outside the Big Joe Turner 5-CD boxed set! Okay–I’ll give it to him, and give it to him good. “I’ve heard it said,” I begin, “that the thrill of romance . . . can be like a heavenly dream. I go to bed with a prayer that you’ll make love to me . . . strange as it seems.” Voila. You want creative gender-blender thinking, you got it.

But I am not doing an oral report for extra credit.

At the Farrah Fawcett Wing of the Smithsonian

     Farrah Fawcett’s red bathing suit and a poster bearing her image have been donated to the Smithsonian.
                The Boston Herald

As I herded my class of seventh-grade boys from Ryan O’Neal Consolidated Middle School up the steps of the Smithsonian Institution, I had to catch myself more than once, the wave of emotions that swept over me was so strong.

“This isn’t like the Lincoln Memorial,” I had said to the kids the day before. “That’s just a boring statue of a guy sitting in a chair who made a lot of people mad by giving away free slaves, then got shot at a theatre. Tomorrow’s trip will be about the woman who launched America into the Curling Iron Age, with side bangs that flipped up higher than any manned space craft the Russians ever launched.”

With sufficient Dippity-Do, no helmet is required.

My little guys had soaked it all in; they’re good kids, just–so ignorant of American history! It makes me wonder what the hell their sixth-grade history teacher, Rose Alba Quince, taught them last year. Goldie Hawn? Connie Stevens as Cricket Blake in Hawaiian Eye? I tell you, it’s the decline of standards in American education that has allowed back-lot nations like Japan and Singapore to vault past us in mastery of TV starlets.

Connie Stevens: Go, girl, go!

No, I wanted my kids to understand where the hair styles of the girls they’d be dancing with at this Friday’s sock-hop came from. How America had progressed from the uptight tresses of Hesther Prynne, to the demure bun of Emily Dickinson, to the pageboy, to the bee-hive, then ultimately the heavenly tresses of Farrah, like the wings of a cherubim, in Charlie’s Angels. Don’t tell me you can’t make history exciting!

Emily Dickinson: Bo-ring.

I was already planning the study materials and exam I would give them the day after to gauge their mastery of what they would see. Sample question: In the famous poster of Farrah that sold over 12 million copies, which nipple is standing at attention through her bathing suit: (a) left, (b) right, (c) other, (d) none of the above. I know, I know–people say that “high-stakes” exams force teachers to “teach to the test,” but dammit–this stuff is important!

Kate Jackson: Compare and contrast–show your work.

I hope some of my students will go on to advanced studies in Charlie’s Angelsology, maybe write a master’s thesis like “Kate Jackson: Third Wheel or Brunette Glue That Held the Angels Together?” Or how about “Jaclyn Smith: What Happened to the Other Letters in Her First Name?” These are important questions, people!

Jaclyn Smith

What’s that, Timmy? Who are Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith? Oh-my-God! Do you mean to tell me that you think Charlie’s Angels was just a movie with Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore and Lucy Liu? Good Lord–it is just so sad to me when kids grow up ignorant of the past, not knowing our nation’s treasured heritage.

Did you know that Farrah styled her own hair for her iconic 1976 poster? That she applied her makeup without using a mirror? Or that her blonde highlights were further heightened by a squeeze of lemon juice? No? These are the sacrifices our forestarlets made for us!

I can’t believe it–it just breaks my heart.

Let’s go–everybody into the museum–now! And I want you to march straight to the Smithsonian Gift Shop. I may have to reach down deep into my own pocket–that’s what budget cuts mean for underpaid teachers like me–but I’m going to make sure each and every one of you leaves here today with a poster of your own!

U of Chicago Dream Team Helps Zimbabwe Fight Inflation

HARARE, Zimbabwe. Inflation has ravaged this landlocked country in southeastern Africa for decades, but recent events have surprised even hardened observers such as Zkanu Nkomo (pronounced “Jim Smith”). “I asked the man at the store how much he charged for a cup of mukaka wakakora (curdled milk),” Nkomo explains. “He said 120,000,000 Zimbabwean dollars, but by the time I got my wallet out, the price had gone up another 30 million.”

“With our ragged faculty clothing, we should fit right in.”

The rate of inflation recently hit its highest level ever, 7,000 percent per year, causing international bodies to seek help from leading academics around the world to stabilize the situation before the country descended into chaos. A group of inflation fighters from the economics department at the University of Chicago has stepped into the breach, offering hope that the country may be able to reverse its current course with an infusion of market discipline.

“Excuse me, do you have change for a $100,000,000 bill?”

“We were hoping for Bono,” says Nkende Masvingo, referring to the rock singer who has made sub-Saharan poverty his personal crusade, “but they sent us Gary Becker because U2 was on tour.”

Becker: “Bono sends his regards.”

Becker, the winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Economics, will lead a “dream team” including Steven Levitt, co-author of the best-selling pop economics book “Freakonomics,” that will set up camp in this city, the nation’s capital. “First, we need to understand the situation,” said Becker. “Then, we’ll bloviate on what people should do about it.”

“Freakonomics” author Steven Levitt: “Did you know that higher marginal tax rates cause weight loss in sumo wrestlers on crack?”

Translating the highly analytical language of economics into terms that everyday consumers and business people can understand won’t be easy. “These economists do not know how to talk normally,” says Mberte Oswingo, a cab driver. “They also dress funny.”

Milton Friedman: “A million dollars for Cap’n Crunch? There’s no such thing as a free breakfast!”

So local tsava musicians, who perform in a gently swaying style popular among native Zimbabweans, are working with Becker’s team to come up with songs that will convey an inflation-fighting message in a rhythmic wrapper.

As the two contrasting groups meet in their first jam session, Oliver Mtaweira, the senior statesman of tsava, asks Becker to give him a few basic themes to work with. “Well,” Becker begins, “Our Godfather, Milton Friedman, said that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”

“This is quite lyrical,” Mtaweira says, as he strums a few chords on his guitar and begins to sing. “Baba munini francis, wenhamo haaneti,” he croons, “Hatisitoses tvimbodzemoto,” and Levitt asks a translator what the words mean. “Inflation she is your enemy, she’ll cause you to die. Tell your central banker to reduce the money supply.”

Three Celine Dions–no waiting.

“Very nice,” Becker says, nodding his head to the beat. The musicians work out the verses, a chorus, and a bridge from a Celine Dion song–”A New Day Has Come”–that the Chicagoans have brought with them as a gift. “Gary’s nuts about her,” says Phyllis Ostertag, an assistant professor. “Personally, I think she’s a dingbat, but he’s the big enchilada.”

After the group works out enough songs to make up a 45-minute set suitable for weddings and circumcision rituals, they relax and begin to swap stories and tales about their respective professions. Mtaweira, who like many Zimbabweans has a native suspicion of free-market economics, offers to tell a favorite joke about the visitors’ profession.

“Two economists have been lost in the Chimanimani Mountains for many days with nothing to eat, when they stumble upon a can of pork and beans,” he begins. “The one economist says to the other, ‘This is most fortunate, but how will we open it?’ The other economist thinks for a moment and says ‘Assume a can opener.’”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddlin’ Anymore.”

Yellen: Sports Tchotchkes Next Bubble to Burst

WASHINGTON, D.C.  Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen warned Congress yesterday that a speculative bubble in over-priced sports “tchotchkes” threatens the nation’s fragile recovery from the crash that followed a run-up in housing prices, and could hamper more tasteful decorating schemes of female consumers.

“It was this enormous tacky gew-gaw with a little statue of World Series MVP David Ortiz.”


“Price stability and decorating predictability are the hallmarks of guidance on fiscal and monetary parameters in periods of misallocation of resources to blah-blah-blah,” Yellen said in “Fedspeak,” the Esperanto of central bankers.  “Money spent on commemorative sports doo-dads represents expenditures more wisely used on window treatments, such as swags and jabots.”

Limited edition!


The all-male panel of the Senate Banking Committee responded negatively to Yellen’s dour assessment of the potential upside in sports collectibles, saying consumer spending by sports-obsessed males could jump start the economy.  “When you go to the ballpark everybody wants a souvenir,” said Edward Markey (D-MA).  “Cash you don’t spend in the gift shop is money that would just go to waste being saved in some boring bank, and that’s no fun.”

Pillows are like prunes: Is 6 enough?  12 too many?

Yellen cited a Keynesian “multiplier” effort to more tasteful decorating expenditures, saying the purchase of a burnt sienna throw pillow often resulted in supplementary purchases of similar goods in ecru, brick and seafoam.  “Basically, you buy one piece of commemorative Super Bowl crap you’ve shot your wad,” she noted drily.

“Next thing you know she’ll be going after your Packers throwback helmet desk lamp!”

Republican members of the committee said their Democratic counterparts in the majority were only getting their comeuppance after they ignored the counsel of colleagues in the minority party.  “I told you there was a reason the name of the job was ‘Chairman’,” noted Mike Crapo (R-ID).  “Don’t cry to me when they come after your limited edition 2014 Ralph Lauren Ryder Cup Big Pony Hooded Windbreaker.”

Of a Painting Titled “Winter Sunset at Duxbury”

I bought it with my tax refund, a rendering in violet blues, greys,
deep greens and indigo of the winter sun going down over a hedge.
It gave me peace to look upon it, especially on those hopeless days
when I’d leave home and return in the dark, fulfilling my pledge




to wife and child; there’d be a time when I’d have a salt marsh view
down on the Cape, away from the city, the madman’s cry
each morning as I came out of the station, I thought. I called to
track the guy down–last name “Holmes”–and found him, first try.


salt marsh


I told him I liked his work and asked if he had anything else to sell.
“I gave it up,” was all he said at first. There was silence which I tried
to coax him out of. “There’s no money in art,” he said. I could tell
he was bitter, so I let it go. I figured something within him had died


but its ghost haunted him. I said “If you change your mind, call.”
He said “Sure,” we said goodbye. I wondered if I worsened his pall.

I’m Dreaming of a White Easter

I’m dreaming . . . of a white Easter–
unlike the ones I used to know.
Where the tulips glisten . . .
and children listen . . .
to hear–snow plows on the roads.


I’m dreaming . . . of a white Easter–
With every Easter egg I dye.
This long winter’s starting to bite–
so may all your Easterses—be white.

Fran Landesman and the Sad Songs of Spring


“When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,” wrote Swinburne, “The mother of months in meadow or plain/Fills the shadows and windy places/With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain”? And who are you or I to gainsay that sentiment, however loaded it may be with hissing sibilants and fricking frickatives?

But those lines, depicted tongue-in-cheek by James Thurber, give no hint of an answer to a more troubling question that arises this time of year: Why are the best of songs about spring–sad?

Swinburne: “Konked,” as Lou Rawls would say, “to the bone.”


It’s that time of year. In spring, we ought to be happy; winter is over, and spring, so long longed for, is here. Perhaps the much-awaited fulfillment of a fervent wish is bound to disappoint.

In spring, as e.e. cummings put it,

when the world is mud-
luscious the little lame baloonman whistles far and wee.

A “little lame balloon man”–pretty sad, if you ask me, but you didn’t.

When we sing of spring, we tend–unless we’re idiots humming “Here Comes Peter Cottontail”–to sing sadly.

Fran Landesman


Like “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”–lyrics by Fran Landesman, music by Tommy Wolf.

It is the anti-spring song, one for those who once threw their hearts away each spring, but who now say a “spring romance hasn’t got a chance.”

Here is a fine version by Ella Fitzgerald. Landesman has the look of a woman for whom lines of regret such as

Spring this year has got me feeling
like a horse that never left the post.
I lie in my room staring up at the ceiling.
Spring can really hang you up the most

were more than an exercise in poesy; someone who was a lot of fun, but who may have waited for some calls that never came as men chose other leggier, prettier girls for–as Cleveland Amory said of a young man from Boston backed by a long-winded reference–breeding purposes. She was called “the Dorothy Parker of jazz,” and many assumed (including me) that she’d been disappointed in love because of her acerbic lyrics.

Ella Fitzgerald


That view, as it turns out, couldn’t have been more wrong. Landesman was happily married for six decades to her husband Jay, publisher of the beat journal Neurotica, and yet he allowed her a wide latitude in romantic affairs. While there’s no registry or clerk’s office in which to record extramarital acts and deeds, it is widely assumed that Landesman was a lover to, among others, both Jack Kerouac, whom she called the handsomest man she ever met, and Lenny Bruce, who proposed to her. “Let’s you and me go on the road,” Bruce wrote to her, “and send Jay a little money every month.”

She described her relationship with her husband in the poem “Semi-Detached”:

We each have a side that’s as free as the air,
And people don’t see the side that we share.
Our set-up is sweet. There isn’t a catch,
The secret is living semi-detached.

“Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” was a play on T.S. Eliot’s line “April is the cruellest month” from The Waste Land, and was apparently part of a high-brow self-deprecating trend among the beatniks to lampoon themselves by re-casting classics such as Shakespeare into hip argot. (Are today’s hipsters in Brooklyn or elsewhere doing anything similar, or even capable of it?) It was first performed, along with “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men,” in a musical developed from Jay’s unpublished novel about the beat scene in New York, “The Nervous Set.” The show was a huge success in St. Louis, but closed after three weeks when it moved to New York. A half-century later, though, “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” is still being performed.

Happy or ecstatic as Landesman may have been with her love life, when she featured it in her work she tended to shine a melancholy light on it; she titled two collections of her poetry Scars and Stripes and How Was It for You? Freed from the convention of monogamy, she may have found pleasure but not necessarily fulfillment.

At the end of her life her sight failed, but she continued to perform her poetry–in a half spoken, half sung fashion all her own–from memory.

The woman who was sometimes called “the godmother of hip” died in July of 2011 at the age of 83, five months after her husband.

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