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Archive for December, 2009

In Memoriam: OSCAR GRANT III (1987-2009)

Thursday, December 31st, 2009


Button-Play-32x32 January 1, 2010: One year later Kiilu Nyasha & Emory Douglas remember

oscar-grant Courtesy photo

Oscar Grant III


Courtesy of the Johnson Family


San Francisco Chronicle: ‘BART Shooting Captured on Video’

John Burris / Courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle

Big Brother and the dark future of cell phone videos (SF Weekly)


Button-Play-32x32Cell phone close-up video of the Oscar Grant III killing at BART Fruitvale Station, New Year’s Day 2009

Button-Play-32x32The full Karina Vargas video


walt-whitman-photograph mlk-jr

Walt Whitman | Martin Luther King, Jr.



For two voices. Texts from Walt Whitman and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking
Five score years ago,
Out of the mocking bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
A great American signed the Emancipation Proclamation
Out of the ninth-month midnight,
But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free
Over the sterile sands, and the fields beyond, where the child, leaving his bed, wander’d alone, bare-headed, barefoot,
And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition
Down from the shower’d halo,
America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds”

Up from the mystic play of shadows, twining and twisting as if they were alive,
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy
From your memories, sad brother—from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force
From under that yellow half-moon, late-risen, and swollen as if with tears,
The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.
From those beginning notes of sickness and love, there in the transparent mist,
We cannot walk alone…we cannot turn back
From the thousand responses of my heart, never to cease,
We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream”

From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
And some of you have come from areas where your quest—quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.
From such, as now they start, the scene revisiting,
And so, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
I still have a dream
Borne hither—ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”
A man—yet by these tears a little boy again,
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I have a dream today
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
I have a dream today
Taking all hints to use them—but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

— Jack Foley


“In this poem I imagine a kind of collision between the voices of Walt Whitman and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who speak alternately. The Whitman text is from “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”— the cradle of democracy. The King text is from his “I have a dream” speech, delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 march on Washington. As I wrote the poem, I was aware that the surname of our national poet, Walt Whitman, could be taken to mean “White Man.” The concluding line, though Whitman’s, is in italics because I imagine it spoken by both men.”
— Jack Foley


POV: What World Socialist Web Site journalist Kevin Kearney observed in those grainy, jumpy cell phone videos of the Oscar Grant BART tragedy

DOUBLE CONSCIOUSNESS | Creative Expression, a Catalyst for Social Change: In Honor of Oscar Grant III (Nina Sparks, editor)


A SHUFFLE IN CHARLIE: Technical Communications Among Improvising Musicians

Saturday, December 5th, 2009


© 2009 and 2010 by Mayne Smith; reproduced with permission of the author.

This essay, which was revised and updated in April 2010 by the author, debuted and endures at Pieces of Our Mind.

Download the updated version from by clicking the Adobe PDF button below.



Mayne-bust-3-08 © Gail Wilson-Smith

Scholar-songwriter-performer Mayne Smith


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A Shuffle in Charlie:

Technical Communications
Among Improvising Musicians

By Mayne Smith

This piece originally appeared in a collection of essays published to honor Neil Rosenberg on the occasion of his retirement from the Department of Folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland (see the bibliography below under Smith 2005). I made some additions and corrections in October of 2009 for republication on my website. The essay concludes with a lengthy glossary of brief definitions for the italicized words, followed by a bibliography of cited publications. Any contributions, comments, or corrections are quite welcome. 


In a jam session, with or without an audience, improvising musicians in North America inevitably need to share coordinating technical information. For instance, with a group of jamming country or rock players onstage somewhere, you might hear one call to the others, “A blues shuffle in Charlie. Start with a turn-around. One, two, three, AND …” (The italicized words are defined in the glossary that concludes this essay.) They may be strangers to each other, but if the key musicians are competent, the music will start in a properly organized manner and the performance may continue with alternating vocal and instrumental solos climaxed with a strong ending, as if it had been rehearsed.

What magic makes this happen? Cultural magic: a body of conventional knowledge that is shared among a huge number of musicians, most of whom are scarcely aware of it. (By “musicians” I mean people who make music on a regular basis, whether they are amateurs or full-time professionals.)

Fundamental Knowledge

Consciously or not, when they improvise together all musicians rely on shared, unspoken knowledge — much beyond that needed to perform alone.

This essay focuses on vernacular music situations where written music is not supplied and is not commonly used in the learning process. Keep in mind, though, that the use of music notation does not preclude interpretation and improvisation. The jazz world frequently uses head arrangements where specific notes are learned in rehearsal, based sometimes on lead sheets that consist of melody lines with chord-names added. In the sphere of art music, conductors and performers rely on written musical scores to determine which notes will be played and when. However musical notation’s symbols are used and interpreted differently in different musical-cultural contexts. Written notes function in art music, theatrical, and jazz spheres in disparate ways.

In the country and rock worlds, various types of chord charts are often used as the infrastructure for improvising in recording sessions, in live performances, and sometimes in jam sessions. One type is just a step away from lead sheets, with chord names written between bar lines on a musical staff, sometimes with marks indicating the number of beats devoted to each chord. A second approach involves writing the chord names on plain paper, with vertical lines or boxes indicating separate measures.

A third type of chord chart is commonly referred to as the Nashville number system. This employs Arabic numerals to represent the scale notes on which the chords are based, and various other symbols to indicate rests, note durations, etc. The exclusive use of chord numbers rather than names makes it easy to transpose a complex arrangement from one key to another — very convenient when there’s a modulation or when a singer needs to change to a more suitable key. The number system is very compact, so it can be written on note cards or scrap paper. A simple spoken language is derived from the system: musicians can be told that a song will begin with a “fifty-five eleven turn-around,” meaning that there will be two bars of the dominant (5) chord followed by two bars of the tonic (1). On paper these four bars are represented by the numbers 5511. A 130-page book by Chas Williams covering many variations on this system is available on the Internet (Williams 2005).

When players are improvising on stage together, they need to share a lot of background knowledge. In most styles where improvised jamming occurs, lead players will trade solo breaks or rides backed up by the rest of the ensemble. (But the term “break” isn’t universal, and could be interpreted to mean that the musician should stop playing.) Instrumental solos are allocated to individuals on some basis, perhaps alternating with leads by one or more vocalists. In written or head arrangements performed in public, solo breaks are not necessarily given to all lead players, especially in a group numbering more than five. The more informal the jamming situation, the more likely it is that solo breaks will simply be sequenced in clockwise or counter-clockwise order among all musicians. In a non-public context, it’s likely to be assumed that every player will get a solo break — including drummers and bassists in the jazz world, not necessarily in others. In some styles or contexts it’s considered appropriate to improvise backup (contrasting responses to the lead) but not always. Another example: in the country scene, solo and backup roles are commonly traded off every 8 bars (two lines of a verse or chorus). In bluegrass or jazz, where instrumental virtuosity is held in especially high regard, instrumentalists are more likely to trade off every 16 or even 32 bars. The musicians have to know or deduce such varying and unspoken rules in order to participate fully.

There’s also the question of how tunes are chosen in a jam. I frequently participate in jam sessions where the choice of numbers passes among all the musicians around a circle as in a poker session, and the dealer calls the game. But in less familial contexts there will be a limited number of preeminent singers or players who feel free to suggest songs or tunes as vehicles for jamming. Musicians need to be careful in unfamiliar jam scenes and watch for cues that they are committing sociomusical errors. In many contexts there are standard canonical pieces that journeyman musicians are expected to know, often including exact solos and hooks from famous recordings. In the bluegrass world, players are expected to be able to play (and maybe sing harmony with) almost everything Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs recorded before 1960. In the jazz world, the list of canonical pieces may cover Louis Armstrong’s hits or Duke Ellington’s or Miles Davis’, depending on the sub-style involved.


LMS-at-Cabale-8-63 © Hugh Peterson

Mayne Smith in performance in 1963 at the Cabale, Berkeley’s fabled folk music club.


Calling the Key

In a jamming situation one of the necessary preliminaries to playing is selecting what key the next piece will be in. Although there are standard keys for canonical pieces, particularly in jazz, whenever singers are involved standard keys may need to be changed to suit their vocal ranges. Jazz musicians can signal key changes for modulating with fingers held up or down to indicate the number of flats or sharps in the key signature (MacLeod 1993:74). This system would be lost on country and blues musicians, who typically are not very familiar with musical notation, much less key signatures. Yet in both musical worlds, experienced musicians expect a modulation to occur by way of the dominant chord of the new key.

Among country musicians, especially when there’s enough audience noise to make conversation difficult, the leader for a given tune will simply call the next key out loud, but will use whole words to avoid confusion between B, C, D, E, and G, which share the same vowel sound. Onstage, I’ve heard words like Boy, Charlie, Dog, Echo, and George used to call the next key. There are also joking key-designators in use among folkies in informal settings: the Canadian key (A), the Mexican key (C), the key of love (F), and the people’s key or God’s key (G). I’ve proposed the Buddhist key (B).

A unique, simple, and subtle way of signaling the key was used by bluegrass bandleader Bill Monroe. He would lightly play a chopped chord on his mandolin in the desired key, enabling the guitar and banjo players to position their capoes while he was speaking to the audience.

Establishing the Rhythm

In the art music world, a conductor typically raises his baton to prepare the ensemble and then makes an upward stroke in-tempo before bringing it down on the first beat to be played.

Starting an improvised ensemble performance in a jazz session is not very different. The leader will call the name of a tune and begin it by stomping off a bar or two of the tempo; for standard tunes the musicians are assumed to know the meter, the key, and any conventionalized melodic head that may be expected. Jazz players have used the stomp-off for something like a hundred years — no count, just four hammers of a heel on the floor. In public performances — particularly while the band was returning to the stand after an intermission, Duke Ellington would often improvise introductory material on the piano, ending up with a lead-in that set the tempo and cued the beginning of the next piece (Hasse 1993:315).

In a loud, rock-oriented context the drummer may click his crossed sticks together in front of his face, effectively providing both visual and audible information. In public performances, he may befed a “click track” through ear phones.



Friday, December 4th, 2009



Button-Play-32x32 “I Am the Goddess”


La Tigresa and The Tongues of Flame perform at Taste of Rome in Sausalito, California.

To purchase the audio CD, Naked Sacred Spoken Word, visit

“What gives this book of La Tigresa (Dona Nieto) its real power … comes … with the genuine relationship the Tigress has with nature’s gifts: insects, rocks and the moon. I’ve never read a poet … who could evoke so much from an encounter with a butterfly! … with a charm that is unforgettable.”
–Jack Hirschman, San Francisco poet laureate emeritus

“In its passionate embrace of sensuality and society, the poetry of La Tigresa (Dona Nieto) purrs and growls, but rarely meows. [She] knows what she’s doing as she plugs touch back into every page — along with voice, heart, gut and every other sense … La Tigresa celebrates the body electric and the body politic with sheer pleasure, devotion, intuition and wit … In her stand-up presence, under her spell, you smile, recognizing the underlying question that drives these poems in which corporate and human agendas collide.”
— Al Young,
California poet laureate emeritus


waterfall3 Clickable

Button-Play-32x32 WATCH



Friday, December 4th, 2009


The ‘Blue Collar’ PEN Oakland Awards
Felicity Barringer, The New York Times
(December 5, 2009)

miles_josephine © Imogen Cunningham

Josephine Miles, 1911-1985

Pen Oakland


My Piece of the Puzzle
Doren Robbins

Jazz Idiom: Blueprints, Stills and Frames
Charles L. Robinson and Al Young

Still Alive!
(a memoir)
Herbert Gold

Will Have Been
Janice Blue

Sophia’s Exit Strategy
C. Paolo Caruso

Gentleman Jigger: A Novel of the Harlem Renaissance
Richard Bruce Nugent

Reginald Lockett Lifetime Achievement Awards
A.D. Winans
Harriet Rohmer
Kristin Lattany

Literary Censorship Award
Jefferson Morley

Honored authors will read brief selections from their works followed by a reception.

Anna’s Jazz Island
Sunday, December 6, 2009, 3 to 6 pm
Open to the public



Anna’s Jazz Island, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA 94704
(Just east of Shattuck and Downtown Berkeley BART station)
510.841.JAZZ (5299)