"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Wax Poetics Magazine


posted by R J Noriega at 8:52 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Friday, April 04, 2008
Virtually Cool
If you’re not reading this on a screen, if you don’t have a blog, if your phone is still leashed to a wall, if time has cruelly removed you from the 25-to-34-year-old age bracket beloved by advertisers, you probably missed the book party at the TriBeCa Cinemas in July. The author of the hour was Chris Anderson, who after the drinks entertained the crowd with a simulcast PowerPoint lecture on the topic of his new best seller, “The Long Tail,” which describes how the chokehold of mass culture is being loosened by the new Internet-enabled economics of niche culture and niche commerce.

The party was sponsored in part by a small SoHo-based new-media company called Flavorpill, which produces free e-mail magazines and weekly event guides for New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and London. (Soon to come are editions for Austin, Miami, Seattle and Boston.) Flavorpill’s number of subscribers has been doubling annually since the company started in New York six years ago, and now its family of 10 digital publications has 355,000 readers and projected revenues of $3.5 million this year. Such is Flavorpill’s trend-setting street cred that in some quarters its seal of approval is considered the equivalent of a papal blessing.

“We’ve been called the Condé Nast of e-mail,” says Sascha Lewis, a co-founder.

To whisk up the mood after Anderson’s economics seminar, Flavorpill brought in dance-punk disk jockeys, and from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. there was live music from bands your mother has never heard of, unless her iPod is unaccountably stuffed with booty rap by Spank Rock. Flavorpill also put together a “Tap the Tail” promotional CD of cutting-edge tunes, which staff members were handing out at the door — a far cry from the early days when the company’s brand-extension missionaries used to chalk the logo on the sidewalks of Union Square.

More than 1,300 people showed up at TriBeCa Cinemas; because the event had been “Flavorpilled” — that is, listed in Flavorpill’s New York City e-mail issue No. 318 — a lot of them were what Lewis and his partner, Mark Mangan, call “urban influencers.”

Anderson is such a creature himself — a regular reader of Flavorpill San Francisco, the city where he lives and works as the editor in chief of Wired magazine.

“It resonates with me,” he said when I asked why he likes it. “Why does anybody read anything?”

On one hand it makes perfect sense that Flavorpill would want to fete a book focused on a component of the company’s success. The efficiency with which information can be assembled and distributed on the Internet is the foundation of every digital-content company. Flavorpill created an audience by deftly exploiting a new medium. “In many ways,” Mark Mangan says, “what we’re doing with the events we list is the same as what Time Out New York, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice and other publications are doing. But if you can’t click to a map of where the event is, if you can’t forward it to your friends, if you can’t send it to your cellphone, is it really that useful?”

On the other hand, part of Anderson’s Long Tail thesis is that the Internet is removing bottlenecks between supply and demand and establishing a market where “everything becomes available to everyone.” Unlike with archetypal Long Tail businesses like iTunes or eBay, the success of Flavorpill’s weekly e-mails has less to do with new digital efficiencies than with the classic distinctions of sensibility. Despite the founders’ professed desire not to cater just to a “clique of hipsters,” Flavorpill’s subscriber traffic, ad trade and growing cultural influence depend on the “cultural filtering” of staff members who would not have to change much if they wanted to attend Flavorpill’s ultracool Halloween party dressed as a clique of hipsters. The success of Flavorpill in defining what’s cool raises the question: How cool can anything really be if everyone knows about it?

It’s hard to think of things that are less dynamic than the production of a digital city-events guide, which is why Mark Mangan came to work one day with a hand-held Chinese gong. The editorial process at Flavorpill starts quietly each Wednesday morning, and stays quiet as the week unfolds, until Monday evening, when a series of ear-shattering gong strikes ceremoniously marks the moment each city’s week of “filtered cultural stimuli” is released to the tech leprechauns who then push the stuff onto the Net for subscribers to open on Tuesday afternoon.

The managing editors of each city edition live in the cities they cover, but Mangan and Lewis, the sales staff, the techies and the production editors who format and copy-edit the cultural stimuli are all based in New York. Headquarters is a 2,500-square-foot loft on Broadway, next door to the New York institute of Alfred Adler, the famous Freudian apostate whose cultural profile is sorely lagging Spank Rock’s, to judge from the 20-somethings at Flavorpill who had never heard of him. The office has the shoestring-chic of a college newspaper. There’s always music going — evidently nothing facilitates cultural filtration like minimalist German techno. Four clocks mind the time in Flavorpill cities. There is a bicycle by the fire exit, a conference room designed around a garage door and dozens of desks glowing with the flat-screen fire of Macs and PC’s. As for the Aeron chairs that were once de rigueur at digital media companies before the Internet bubble burst in 2000, there are just two, reserved for the head guys.

The week after the Long Tail party I followed the preparations for Flavorpill N.Y.C. No. 319. It was being edited, or “curated,” as they like to say, by the New York managing editor, Jake Lancaster, a tall 30-year-old Boston University graduate who got his start at Flavorpill a few years ago when, for joy not money, he reviewed the Brooklyn hip-hop artist Beans. Eventually he landed a gig as one of Flavorpill’s 12 full-time employees.

When he got to his desk that Wednesday, his e-mail in-box was swollen with potential listings, all of them tagged and routed by a proprietary content-management system built by Flavorpill and known, somewhat ominously, as the Tool. About half of the final cut of 25 items for the coming week would be gleaned from suggestions submitted by regular Flavorpill contributors, nearly all of whom were also writing for the joy of it, or — if they were young and aspiring journalists — for clips and contacts.

One possible No. 319 item caught Lancaster’s eye right away: an anniversary performance of “Asssscat” by the improv comedy group the Upright Citizens Brigade. It was sent in by longtime Flavorpill contributor Mindy Bond, who has a double life not atypical of Flavorpill contributors. At night she trolls obscure cultural tributaries; during the day she works in the main channel of the mainstream, in the speech-writing department of Time Warner. (“I look for events that are quirky or weird,” she told me later. “Or things that are going to catch on but haven’t quite. I steer away from things that are listed in The New Yorker. If something has the Flavorpill stamp, you know it is cool or interesting or funny or ahead of the curve and will attract people that have the same interests you do.”) Good comedy listings were hard to come by, and Lancaster quickly made Asssscat a finalist; it was knocked out at the last minute for technical reasons (Flavorpill e-mails don’t list shows that sell out before publication).

Done with the submissions in the Tool, Lancaster turned to sift through a long queue of e-mailed press releases and his massive list of venue Web sites. “We try to keep the issue a light read,” he said. “No one wants a novel in their e-mail.”

“What would never make the final cut?”

“Anything really really expensive,” Lancaster said.

“Anything at Madison Square Garden,” said Leah Taylor, the 22-year-old New York production editor who was sitting at the next computer, reading a British music Web site called This Is Fake DIY.

“Anything exceedingly banal,” Lancaster added. “There’s no point to listing a classic rock band that’s been around for 40 years, like the Allman Brothers. But an old lounge act we might list for the kitsch factor. Occasionally some venues will really surprise you. Like B.B. King’s. They’ll have a lot of incredibly cheesy stuff — Beatles brunches and terrible cover bands — and then they’ll have some crazy death-metal band. The tough thing is keeping track of nontraditional venues.”

In the course of the week I made a point of asking anyone I could what characterized the sensibility behind each week’s batch of filtered cultural stimuli. It proved a surprisingly hard needle to thread: a set of ineffable intuitions and aesthetic standards that seemed as nebulous as they were exacting. Possibly Flavorpill’s influence has less to do with what is on its menu than with the fact that the menu isn’t overstuffed with entrees. Flavorpill doesn’t take the Greek coffee shop approach and paralyze readers with a surfeit of options.

“I would say the primary focus is on emerging culture of all kinds,” said Jocelyn Glei, the 29-year-old group managing editor who oversees all five city guides, as well as the specialized magazines. “There aren’t really any parameters, the only overriding factor is that we really believe in the artist or the production — we really think something is great.” As an example of how Flavorpill draws from mainstream sources as well as cultural backwaters, Glei cited New York Flavorpill issues that listed both the conventional production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and a production at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg of “The Kung Fu Importance of Being Earnest,” which hilariously stitched martial arts scenes into Wilde’s classic drawing-room comedy.

“I would say the aesthetic we uphold is always about our own canon,” said Lisa Rosman, a longtime contributor. “Either very new cultural trends or older ones that are vital to the ones that prevail at the moment. An example would be that we always highlight Gil Scott-Heron, even though he was a 60’s-70’s dude, since he pretty much helped launch hip-hop. Our aesthetic is mainstream indie, though we don’t admit it. It’s under the wire, but just. And the minute we report on it, its under-the-wire status is absolutely blown.”

As Flavorpill’s film editor, Rosman contributes to all the city publications, and she has developed a feel for the subtle regional differences. “Chicago has its own kind of hard-core R.&B.-inspired scene and an art scene inspired by both the Art Institute of Chicago and cheaper rents. L.A. has a refracted neon palm tree glam, which is a reaction to all that Hollywood veneer that wends its way into visual art especially, but also into music and all the retro-movie houses. London, well those kids have a jaunty charm I’ve yet to pin down.”

Every list item seems to entail a complex aesthetic calibration and raises the possibility that staff members who imagine themselves consummate indie hipsters may actually have an uncomfortable amount in common with mainstream dorks. Rosman told me that a few editors had a big debate about whether to list a Justin Timberlake concert. “The feeling was we couldn’t, because Justin Timberlake is not cool,” she said. “But everyone at Flavorpill secretly loves Justin Timberlake.”

Flavorpill’s founders, Mark Mangan, 35, and Sascha Lewis, 36, are both veterans of the first Internet boom. Mangan grew up in a Main Line Philadelphia suburb, the second of four kids. Having read “The Aeneid” in Latin at the Episcopal Academy, he thought he would be a scholar or a writer. But he showed an early knack for business, selling taffy out of his locker to his fellow fourth graders and turning the family basement into a profitable silk-screen T-shirt factory during high school.

“My mom is an accountant; she explained C.O.G.S. to me — cost of goods sold,” Mangan recalled one day over lunch at Barmarché in NoLIta. He was casually dressed, dark-haired, with friendly brown eyes and a delicate starfish of a scar on his forehead, a result of a car crash in the family Volvo when he was 5.

At the University of Vermont, Mangan studied English and French; he spent a year in Paris reading philosophy and literature at the Sorbonne and bartending in the Paris branch of Cactus Charly.

Back home after graduation, he took the LSAT but decided not to follow his father and his older brother, Mike, into a law career. A friend had given him a 1993 report on the growth and future of the Internet. He was inspired to dig out his dad’s I.B.M. desktop computer and start poking around online.

In 1995 he landed a job as a Web consultant, and a year later, with Jonathan Wallace, he wrote a well-received book, “Sex, Laws and Cyberspace.” In 1998, as the frenzy of the Internet land rush was cresting, he set out to stake a claim with his own lifestyle e-commerce business. He was looking for capital when he bumped into Lewis, whom he had known through a mutual friend since college.

Lewis, unlike Mangan, had no itch to homestead in cyberspace. He grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, with an older sister. His mother worked as a child therapist; his father founded the New York-based Touchstone Center for Children. Lewis was 11 when they divorced. He played baseball and basketball at the Walden School in New York. During the winter of his senior year, he worked as the ball boy for the New York Knicks. He occasionally got to shoot around on the floor of Madison Square Garden with visiting gym rats like Larry Bird and Isiah Thomas.

Today, with his hair gone, his athletic competitiveness tempered by age, a regular yoga practice and possibly the pacifying effects of a vegetarian diet, he still seems driven — ready to dive for a loose ball. Two fixtures of his wardrobe are his white Royal Elastics sneakers and a colored terry cloth wristband.

After graduating from Union College in 1992, Lewis worked at a club called Mr. Fuji’s. “I loved night life,” he says. “I was always the guy in the group who takes charge of where we should go.”

A year later, he got into real estate and in 1995 started his own company, but the unutterable bliss of finding apartments for supermodels like Linda Evangelista wasn’t what he had in mind when he recalled his boyhood desire to change the world. Neither was e-commerce. He didn’t own a computer; he knew virtually nothing about the Internet. But anything was better than haggling with landlords, and when he heard Mark Mangan’s pitch, he agreed to put up $10,000 and join the team.

Netsetgoods.com opened in December 1998. The e-shelves were stocked with pashminas from India, watches from Japan, one-strap messenger bags from France. Within 18 months the company had customers from all 50 states and 15 countries and notices from all the major style magazines. Revenues peaked at $300,000 a year.

Then, in March 2000, the Internet bubble burst.

“We just never got the bird off the ground,” says Mark’s brother, Mike Mangan, who was the company’s lawyer.

In the final months before Netset folded in October 2000, the would-be e-commerce moguls sent out e-mail messages to New York Netset customers and people on party lists from the first dot-com boom, when there was an event nearly every night for digital workers eager to relax after a hard day burning venture capital.

The first e-mail message was dispatched on July 11, 2000. With four plain-text items separated by asterisks, the visual presentation was on a par with the wire-service telexes that rattled out the news of Nixon’s resignation in 1974. But the reception was good. So they did one the next week, and another the week after that. When they stopped moving merchandise, Mangan and Lewis thought they might make a go moving cultural advisories instead.

“We had no capital,” Mangan recalls. “No business plan, no model. But we had a growing publication that people were digging, so we said to each other, ‘Let’s just push forward, see how far we can take this.”’

Needing a name, they came up with Flavorpill after three days of brainstorming, convinced that the image of a mouthwatering capsule of culture outweighed the unwanted drug connotations. They registered the domain name that September.

“I wrote the first six months of Flavorpill New York in my kitchen and then e-mailed it to Mark,” Lewis told me. “For three and a half years I don’t think I went to bed once before 2 a.m. on Monday night. Our parents were like: ‘What are you guys doing? You’re college graduates and you’re sending out e-mails?’ My girlfriend at the time would ask for rent, and I would say, ‘Sweetie, it’s just around the corner.”’

Lewis put the $200 monthly Web hosting bill on his Visa card, and took work D.J.-ing at clubs. Mangan scraped by doing Web consulting. Will Keh, a friend they had in common, lavished them with leftovers from his catering company.

In April 2001 they sent out the first issue of Flavorpill that contained graphics. Cover art — original paintings and graphics offered by artists eager to publicize their work — would eventually become a Flavorpill trademark, as would the clean color-shot layout. And then in January 2002 they were able to replace the line of asterisks that delineated the days of the week in their very first e-mail with banner ads from an advertiser. Bloomberg, the news and financial information company founded by the new mayor of New York, bought five weeks of ads for $4,000 per week. Over the next three years Flavorpill would maintain the practice of selling each issue exclusively to one advertiser — companies like Nokia, BMW, Anheuser-Busch — but the rates would rise to $18,000 per issue, about 7 to 10 times the cost of an ad on a mainstream portal like Yahoo. Signs that they had some traction with their audience were springing up everywhere.

“We had club owners starting to call us up and ask, ‘Can you not list us?”’ Mangan told me.

A striking example of Flavorpill’s influence was the company’s collaboration with the Guggenheim Museum. Last year the museum began throwing a D.J. party in the Guggenheim rotunda on the first Friday of the month. The idea was to get a younger crowd of potential new members into the museum after hours. An e-mail press release from the Guggenheim arrived at Flavorpill.

“I had never heard any of their D.J.’s,” Lewis says. “I offered to help. I thought what we would get out of it would be media content, branding and a level of respect with the artistic community.”

“They brought in Diplo,” recalls Julia Brown, the museum’s manager of membership. “We had no idea this guy was the biggest thing since sliced bread.” The museum had been averaging 1,500 people; Diplo turned out nearly twice that number.

In retrospect, that primitive e-mail message Lewis and Mangan first sent out in July 2000 was an uncanny template of the future. It lacked the elegant Flavorpill graphics and the embedded hypertext links that now make each e-mail magazine a springboard to the fathomless esoterica of the Web. But the essential form was there from the start: the brief, superpositive event descriptions with the accent on why readers had to go; the ticket giveaways for added inspiration; the when-and-where info; the scope of venues that included New York’s outer boroughs; the viral marketing and community building embedded in the opportunity to “add a friend” to the e-mail list. Most important, Lewis and Mangan’s initial effort contained an appeal to readers to submit items of what they thought was must-see culture. Soliciting help was hardly an original idea — Tom Sawyer used the same tactic to get his fence painted — but it worked like a dream, providing fresh proof that if you get people excited about a job, they might well do it free.

When Monday arrived, one of the important cultural filterers was missing. “Leah’s home with pinkeye,” said Jake Lancaster. “But she’s working remotely.”

Lancaster was writing the introductory summary of the week. Each Flavorpill issue has a loose theme — Breezy Flavor, Profligate Flavor, Fecund Flavor — and with the Middle East exploding, the one he came up with for No. 319 was Discordant Flavor.

Leah Taylor being off-site meant that her boss, Jon Schultz, the 29-year-old group production editor, would have to pick up the slack. At the moment he was putting in some special coding so that spam filters would not reject a Flavorpill issue containing a word that would make your mother blush. Profanity is generally discouraged, but when writers are working free, you indulge them when you can.

When the San Francisco edition was done, Gerry Mak, the production editor, picked up the Chinese gong and whaled on it with a mallet.

“Woo-hoo!” said Jocelyn Glei, knocking fists with Mak. She turned back to proofreading, finding a space that needed to be closed up between a word and an ellipsis.

One by one, as London, L.A. and Chicago were wrapped, city production editors rose and trooped to the gong. Whether they whacked it once or twice, or apologetically, or vigorously, or with a demented zeal, the crescendo of sound cut through the minimalist German techno like Patton’s Third Army, lending texture and drama to the invisible rush of bytes.

Finally Schultz stood up. New York No. 319 was done. “Bring me the mallet!” he said.

Two days later I stopped by Mark Mangan’s apartment in the East Village, a 15-minute walk from his office. He brought some beer up to the roof, where there were a couple of chairs and a view.

Somehow time had carried him beyond the demographic center of his audience, more than half of whom were between 25 and 34. And he was looking in from the outside in other ways, being in the business of telling people where they could go but hardly ever getting out himself.

“It’s a little bit the story of the cobbler’s son — you know, he’s the one who doesn’t have any shoes,” he said.

Work was always on his mind. New cities beckoned, potential Flavorpills for Berlin, Tokyo, São Paulo, Toronto. It was possible that in a few years they could have three million readers. Every day he scanned a hundred Web sites, he read 200 to 300 e-mail messages. Six years on, the company was finally hitting its stride; they had turned down buyout offers.

“Now is when then fun begins,” he said.

More than once both Mangan and Lewis told me that their ambition was “to raise the water level of good culture,” as if buried in Flavorpill’s consumerist approach — in the trivial hedonism of any list of things to do — was a reformer’s agenda. Set aside that cultures are defined as much by what people detest as what they love. Week after week Flavorpill finds things to praise in the seemingly quixotic hope that the heavy lifting of cultural improvement might be accomplished through the rigor of a rosy focus.

The sun was long gone when we climbed down the stairs from the roof. It was a blistering night in the East Village. Mangan flipped open his cellphone. On the screen were the Flavorpill suggestions for that Thursday, fed to his phone by Dodgeball.com. He scrolled down the list. There was an Okkervil River concert at Castle Clinton. Missed that. At the Prospect Park Bandshell Yo La Tengo was performing their original score for eight documentary short films by the “surrealist aquanaut Jean Painlevé.” Missed that too. The Canada Gallery was featuring a group show led by Jim Drain, who was known for his “patchwork totem-sculptures that exude alien cool.” Too late again. The Great Villains in Cinema at Brooklyn Academy of Music? Not tonight. He shrugged. No matter. There was a feast out there, and something with his name on it was sure to turn up soon.

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posted by R J Noriega at 7:51 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
The Accidental Ad Agency
Flavorpill was just a Web content player. But Bud had a better idea

Flavorpill is additional proof that you can build a Web media company from an e-mail. Yes, just like online classifieds juggernaut craigslist, whose genesis was an e-mailed list of parties in San Francisco. And DailyCandy, which now directs style-savvy young women in 10 cities to all manner of boutiques and services, and, which, earlier this year, projected 60%-plus profit margins on revenues of $18.8 million in 2006.

Flavorpill was once a list of cultural events that co-founders Sascha Lewis and Mark Mangan sent out to a few pals in New York. It's now an e-mail that goes out to a few hundred thousand subscribers in four U.S. cities and London. It owns five other Web properties, including music site Earplug and art site Artkrush. What DailyCandy is to fashion, Flavorpill is to the subset of urban culture -- DJ appearances, gallery openings, film revivals -- often tagged as "downtown." It's a cultural signifier that the recorded voice greeting callers to Flavorpill's Manhattan offices is breathy, British, female, and young, as it is at another New York-based hipster media play, Vice.

Flavorpill employs just 10 full-time. Revenues this year, insiders say, will be around $3.5 million. Like other smallish players in this space, it's becoming adept out of necessity at building bridges between its sensibilities and those of big mainstream advertisers. For Anheuser-Busch's (BUD ) Budweiser Select brand, Flavorpill chose 10 artists to design ads for its own Web sites. But the beer baron ended up liking these ads so much that it ran them in music magazine The Fader. And once Web visitors vote on their favorites later this year, one artist's ads will appear in an multi-city outdoor campaign next year. Thus a small media company started out selling its audience and cool quotient, which is old news, but ended up designing ads that will run more widely, which is new. Flavorpill's moves describe a fresh reality of marketing: The line between which entity creates media and which creates advertising is suddenly and strangely malleable.

IT IS, OF COURSE, very Old Media of me to try to slot Flavorpill exclusively into a category marked "media company" or "creative agency." "One of the goals," says Lewis, is "to create as close as possible a seamless relationship between the media partner, aka the advertiser, and our content and our product." The Web "has created a [more] collaborative effort between the media vehicle and the creative content...than any medium in the past," says Tony Ponturo, vice-president of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch. He confirms that Anheuser-Busch expects to double its online spending next year, to around 10% of its ad budget. (Not that the Flavorpill deal will eat up much of it. What the companies call Select Flavor adds up to under $1 million, or a rounding error for Anheuser-Busch, which in 2005 shelled out $785 million in media spending.)

Select Flavor's ads, up at www.flavorpill.net/select, are augmented by the "product seeding" among the urban cool set that's de rigueur for such deals these days. (In July, Flavorpill put on a party in New York celebrating the publication of Chris Anderson's book, The Long Tail, and served Select to celebrants.) But getting Select into the hands and heads of this milieu is exactly why Anheuser-Busch tapped Flavorpill in the first place. "A company like Flavorpill is not a marketing company at all, but they have the right sort of friends" says Rob Walker, author of the "Consumed" column in The New York Times Magazine, who has written extensively about the changing dance between underground culture and the mass market. "Flavorpill has figured out they know some stuff that big companies want to know." And, given Flavorpill's newness and how it's unencumbered by traditional media mores, "it doesn't hurt Flavorpill's brand in any way." Two more deals like Select and Flavorpill practically doubles in size. And so Lewis, who just six years ago merely e-mailed pals about musical events, sounds like his company has a whole new raison d'être. For the new guys, it's not much to turn an editorial sensibility into one that works as advertising.

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posted by R J Noriega at 7:46 PM | Permalink | 0 comments
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
Dogtown East
Even now, they are outsiders in an outsiders’ world.

On an exquisite late-spring afternoon, Andy Kessler is leaning against the promenade wall overlooking the Riverside Park skate park, at 108th Street, when a skateboarder approaches and asks him when the park will open. Kessler, who has skated the city streets for most of his 44 years and has the raw-boned build and craggy, could’ve-been-a-Ramones-roadie look to prove it, doesn’t know. The two strike up a conversation, and at one point, the term “Zoo York” comes up. Of course he’s heard of it, the kid says, rattling off the names of riders associated with the skateboard-and-clothing company owned by Ecko Unlimited.

Kessler says nothing, but after the younger skater departs, a pained frown washes over his face. “That’s a prime example,” he says, his voice a sharp rasp. “Prime. He has no clue. No clue whatsoever.”

Kessler has grown accustomed to these reactions. Thanks to the 2001 documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys and now Lords of Dogtown, a new feature film based on it, everyone seems to know about the California latchkey kids who revolutionized skateboarding in the seventies. But what few realize is that during the same period, New York had its own Dogtown: a loose-knit collective of skateboarders and graffiti artists known as the Soul Artists of Zoo York, with Kessler its most prominent rider. This Zoo York—not the Ecko brand—attacked embankments and plazas with the same body-be-damned abandon as its peers on the West Coast. This Zoo York had members with Warriors-style names like Puppethead, PaPo, and Haze. (In fact, the two worlds converged when the movie was filming in 1978 in Riverside Park—the Zoo crew’s Upper West Side turf—and extras dressed as gang members gathered to watch the teenage skaters.) This Zoo York pioneered the art of city skating, and did so in an environment that iconic Dogtown rider Tony Alva calls “fucking gnarly. We live in paradise compared to those guys.” The Zoo York riders, whom Alva met and rode with in the seventies, “were one step behind us,” he recalls, “right on our heels, doing verticals as high as you can go, getting as aggressive as you can get. They were super hard-core.”

They skated for the same reasons everyone else did, and still does. “We wanted to get away from our parents and feel free,” recalls another Zoo rider, Jaime Affoumado, 39, “and skateboarding is the ultimate freedom.” Yet while everyone remembers celebrated graffiti writers like Zephyr and Futura 2000, the skating contingent of the Soul Artists of Zoo York has been almost completely forgotten and undocumented. Even the city administrator who oversaw Riverside Park has no memory of seeing them there.

“We had skateboarders here who ripped,” Kessler says, strolling—make that hobbling—through his crew’s old turf. Skating an indoor bowl downtown a few weeks earlier, he fell so hard that he broke his left kneecap and pelvis, requiring crutches. “People didn’t even realize skateboarding was going on here. We were all doing the same shit. The guys out in California were just more fortunate.” Kessler and his peers have to settle for a distinction all their own: a starring role in one of the city’s great lost stories.

Everyone remembers the wood planks, especially Catalino Capiello Jr., known on the then-dodgy Upper West Side streets of the late seventies as PaPo. One day in 1978, the genial half-Italian, half–Puerto Rican teenager was roaming his ’hood, skateboard in hand. At Riverside Drive and 95th Street, he came upon a construction site at the off-ramp of the West Side Highway. But something was missing—namely, large chunks of the plywood barricades. Peering inside, PaPo saw them for the first time: grubby kids like himself. Skateboarding. In the park. On a ramp.

“I thought it was phenomenal,” Capiello, now 41, recalls of the first time he saw the Zoo York skaters. “I’d never seen anything like that.” Actually, “ramp” was too kind a term for what Kessler, who was skating that day, calls “rickety pieces of shit.” They were the most basic of eight-by-four planks, usually purloined from unattended construction sites on weekends. (One night, the skaters found a good stash at a site outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, then had to haul the wood across Central Park and into Riverside.) First at the 95th Street off-ramp and later at 116th and Riverside, the skaters shoved the wood up against whatever structure could sustain it and battered it into place with bottles and rocks. Then they would toke up and, with the Hudson River providing as much of a scenic background as they were likely to find, push off on their boards and aim full speed at the concave wood: Up the ramp . . . almost to the top . . . back down. Try again!

“They were these sick, sick guys,” recalls Ricky Mujica, 43, a friend of Capiello’s who, like PaPo, would soon become a Zoo Yorker himself. “Fifty percent of the time they’d kill themselves. But every once in a while they’d make it, and there was a big cheer.” When the skaters returned the following day, chances were that the ramp had been torn down by cops, and the routine would repeat itself.

“The further uptown you went, the quieter and more desolate it was,” Kessler says. “And the more you could get away with.” During their heyday, the Soul Artists of Zoo York got away with a lot. The name actually referred to two different but overlapping groups. The Soul Artists were the graffiti crew, first established in 1972 by a soft-spoken 15-year-old artist named Marc Edmunds, who briefly attended Columbia University (he lasted one month as a 16-year-old freshman). Known as “Ali”—the name he tagged onto walls and trains—Edmunds, who was half–Native American and half–African-American and is still spoken of in hushed, reverential tones, is said to have conceived the term “Zoo York.” “He said the place was like a zoo, literally animals,” Kessler recalls, “but in good and bad ways.”\ The skate scene began to coalesce around the same time. Since some of the skaters also tagged and some graffiti writers skated, it was inevitable that their worlds would converge, which they often did at the Central Park band shell and in Edmunds’s apartment on Columbus Avenue between 106th and 107th streets. With Edmunds’s approval, the skaters adopted the name Zoo York for themselves. Emulating what the Dogtown riders did with their logo, Soul Artist writers like Haze, Revolt, and Zephyr drew the words Zoo York in the shape of a cross onto the bottom of the skaters’ boards. They were ready.

Much like the Upper West Side of their childhood, the Zoo York skaters zigzagged across racial and economic lines. Affoumado was a Bronx-born child actor, while Mujica was living on 94th and Amsterdam with a mother who worked as a keypunch operator for IBM—he learned early on where to scrounge for free bread. Manhattan wasn’t known as a skate mecca—it still isn’t—but they didn’t care. All they yearned to do was transform their drooping city into a playground, and to do so with moves primitive by today’s standards: riding on the edge of one wheel on the ramp, grinding their axles on flower planters, or attempting a complete spin, or 360 (which gave Affoumado his nickname, Puppethead, for the way his head looked when he did one). They rode so hard that, according to Zephyr, a.k.a. Andy Witten, “their boards, after I painted them, would last about two hours and be scraped back down to the wood.”

The de facto leader was Kessler, a long-haired, long-nosed urban string bean born in Greece and raised on West 71st Street by a floral-shop-owner dad and gym-teacher mom. Everyone has their choice Kessler story, like the day he refused to move to the back of a crowded bus, telling the driver, “You move to the back. This place is a sardine can. I’ll drive the bus.”

“The next thing we know,” recalls Mujica, “Andy is thrown out by the driver, and his skateboard comes flying out after him. People didn’t like skateboarders back then.” After chasing the bus for four blocks, Kessler smashed the window with his board. Then there was the time Kessler refused to don a helmet at a skate park in New Jersey and was chased by guards trying to force him to wear one. Fights were commonplace. “I was a good skateboarder,” Kessler admits, “but a real prick to most people.”

Eventually, the crew expanded to nearly fifteen strong—larger and more intimidating than skate gangs in the West Village, Riverdale, Brooklyn, and the Upper East Side. In 1979, Edmunds cemented their reputation and cult by publishing a one-off ’zine, Zoo York, that devoted its “Sports” page to a fictional championship match between the skaters and another crew. There were, in fact, never any competitions, but an outlaw legend was born. Although Kessler says they came from “decent families and went to decent schools,” they weren’t above playing the bully and preying on other kids. They even pinched decks from outsiders riding near the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park. “Throw their boards in the lake,” recalls Kessler, “and make them do laps until we fished their board out and we’d either give it back to them or divvy it up—somebody would get the wheels, somebody would get the trucks. Primitive carjacking.” The first time Affoumado skated with them, bringing along an expensive new deck, “they traded boards with me, and all of a sudden mine was gone.” Then 12, Puppethead cried all the way home. Mujica obtained one deck during the 1977 blackout, when he and friends helped loot a sporting-goods store. At another shop, Edmunds got his mom a new blender.

Of course, this was the seventies—which, as the saga of the Zoo York crew reminds you, was a comparatively lawless time in the city. In the rare moments when they were hassled by cops, skaters would usually roll away with a disorderly-conduct summons—not the fines for the ill-defined “reckless operation” of skateboards on New York City public streets that were signed into law in 1996. (A state law, implemented this January, makes it mandatory for riders under 14 to wear helmets, which the Zoo riders rarely did.) “I see what they did as a lost art,” says Steve Rodriguez, founder and owner of 5boro Skateboards. “Skating in a raw environment doesn’t exist anymore in New York City. You can’t make a ramp in Riverside Park. You can’t find empty pools. Everything’s so policed now.”

Even so, the city never made it easy for them. Manhattan had no skate parks, so the riders had to venture to, among others, a sketchy one in Jackson Heights—the surface of which was so craggy, they joked that the mob owned it and that the lumps were dead bodies mixed in with the concrete. In the winter, they’d shovel narrow paths to the ramps to ride in the snow.

In the pages of Skateboarder Magazine, they’d seen photos of their California heroes carving drained watering holes, and they yearned to do the same. So onto the 1 train to Riverdale they went, spraying graffiti on train cars along the way and scouring apartment complexes for the rare abandoned pool. One day, they stumbled upon an inground one in a building near Van Cortlandt Park. The walls were nine feet vertical and the cement so rough it felt like sandpaper on their pad-free limbs, but they loved it anyway. Dubbing it the “Death Bowl,” they dropped in and carved it almost every day in 1977, the super of the building hurling bricks and batteries at them from the roof of the building. “The fond memories are the ones where I’m pretty much running,” Capiello says. “We had no fear. We thought we could live forever.”

As with all mythical eras, theirs did not last long. The Dogtown riders became pros early on, formed their own companies, grew to be legends. By 1980, though, the Soul Artists of Zoo York were already disbanding. Several of the artists and skaters went off to college. While learning to ollie—jumping a skateboard without a ramp—Mujica injured his knee and switched to roller-skating, eventually touring with Starlight Express. One of Kessler’s best friends, JC, was killed by drug dealers in a buy gone bad; another, Frankie Courtner, succumbed to AIDS. Edmunds developed a crack habit after unexpectedly switching over to a music career (his band, J. Walter Negro and the Loose Jointz, released a single on the short-lived Zoo York Recordz in 1981) and died in Arizona in 1994.

Kessler nearly fell victim to the same fate. By the early eighties, he was on what he calls “early crack patrol,” freebasing cocaine and experimenting with hard drugs. “I was on the cover of Thrasher in 1983 strung out on heroin,” he chuckles, recalling his five-year junk addiction in the mid-eighties. It took several busts—and his own parents’ taking out an order of protection to keep him away from them—to put Kessler on the bumpy road to recovery, after which he worked in everything from massage therapy to flea markets.

By then, the Zoo York crew, largely ignored by the West Coast extreme-sports media, had faded into what few history books would have them—until ex–pro skater Rodney Smith founded the Zoo York skateboard company in 1993. The appropriation of Ali’s hallowed name provokes mixed reactions in the original Zoo riders. Some live with it; others, including Kessler, grow livid when the topic is broached. “There’s no legitimacy to it,” barks Kessler. “Someone snatched up a name that meant something to people years ago. It has nothing to do with us whatsoever.”

“Some of these guys tried to stay away [when the company formed] because they weren’t for what we were doing,” Smith admits, while maintaining that, via an intermediary, he received Edmunds’s verbal blessing to use the name. “Anyone could have owned the name,” Smith says. “But I wasn’t coming at it like some random company using the name Zoo York and exploiting graffiti. Those were not my intentions at all. If they feel that way to this day, it’s kind of wrong.” Either way, Kessler is having none of it: “I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Zoo York cap.”

Look hard enough and you’ll still find the remaining Soul Artists of Zoo York ensconced in underground art or music. The graffiti writers continue to paint and spray, and have seen their art exhibited in galleries and featured on album covers. Of the skaters, Capiello now lives in San Diego, where he creates computer graphics for a publishing firm. Mujica is a painter in his old West Side neighborhood. Affoumado teaches kung fu and just opened Puppet’s Jazz Bar in Park Slope. Kessler designs skate parks; he’s done them in Riverside Park, Brooklyn, Hoboken, and at Pier 40 on the Hudson. Together, they’ve helped him patch together a living. For four years, he worked at the Riverside site. “The only frustrating thing is that even the graffiti writers got more acclaim than we did,” he says. “We didn’t get shit. Guys would think I was just some grumpy old guy sitting at the skate park.”

Near the now-quiet spot of an old West Side ramp, Kessler’s cell phone chimes. Calling from his home in Hawaii is, of all people, Jay Adams, the baddest, fiercest, and most busted of the Dogtown crew. A casual friend of many years, Adams heard Kessler had taken a serious spill and was calling to hear all about it.

“Yo, Jay-Boy!” Kessler roars, and, beaming, fills in Adams on his injury. Kessler has admired the Dogtown riders since first reading about them in skate magazines 30 years ago, and even skated with them in 1978 at the legendary Cherry Hill skate park in New Jersey. “To me, Jay Adams was the shit, and Alva too. I ended up skating a kidney”—a swimming pool—“with Jay for an hour, just me and him, and everyone sitting and watching. The session of a lifetime for me because Jay was the skater I admired the most. That’s the stuff we dreamed about as kids, looking in the magazines, and there I was, skateboarding with him.” When the call ends, a smile breaks out over Kessler’s face, and the bitterness he still feels over his crew’s lack of recognition vanishes, at least for a while.

“So fucking rad,” he says, stabbing the ground with his crutches and pushing off into the park once more.


posted by R J Noriega at 4:05 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Jazz Poetry part 4
by Kenneth Rexroth

Pursuant, as they say, to our conversation, the Village hasn’t changed much. I grew up in it and sat in high chairs at the Brevoort and Lafayette. There’s more of it, and it’s sharper. I don’t think there’s much doubt, for instance, that The Voice is a more civilized organ than Bruno’s Weekly. The place is full of uptowners; it always was. It is expensive; it was in 1920. As a way of life, it goes on unchanged, amongst the call girls, customers’ men, aboriginal Italians and Irish. But where one girl wore colored stockings in 1905, thousands wear them today. Where Floyd Dell read Nietzsche, untold numbers read Beckett in the dim light of cold-water walk-ups.

As for the Beat Generation. Let’s all stop. Right now. This has turned into a Madison Avenue gimmick. When the fall book lists come out, it will be as dead as Davy Crockett caps. It is a pity that as fine an artist as Jack Kerouac got hooked by this label. Of course it happened because of Jack’s naïveté — the innocence of heart which is his special virtue. I am sure he is as sick of it as I am. I for one never belonged to it. I am neither beatified nor pummeled. I’m getting on, but I’ve managed to dodge the gimmick generations as they went past; I was never Lost nor Proletarian nor Reactionary. This stuff is strictly for the customers.

As for Jack himself. Yes, I threw him out. He was frightening the children. He doesn’t frighten me, though when he gets excessively beatified he bores me slightly. I think he is one of the finest prose writers now writing prose. He is a naïve writer, like Restif de la Bretonne or Henry Miller, who accurately reflects a world without understanding it very well in the rational sense. For that, Clellon Holmes is far better on the same scene, shrewd and objective; but, as I am pretty sure he himself would be the first to admit, not the artist Jack is, and lacking, because of his very objectivity, Jack’s poignancy and terror. One thing about Jack and Allen Ginsberg, who, I might remind you, are Villagers, and only were temporarily on loan to San Francisco: I had to come back to New York to realize how good they are. They have sure as hell made just the right enemies.

Now about jazz poetry. Let anybody who wants to have started it go right ahead and have started it. I’m pretty sure I didn’t. But Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I did first start it off as public entertainment before concert and club audiences. For better or worse, I guess we started the craze. It is a lot more than a craze as far as I am concerned. I am not interested in a freak gig. I think the art of poetry in America is in a bad way. It is largely the business of seminars, conducted by aging poets for five or six budding poets.

Jazz poetry gets poetry out of the classrooms and into contact with large audiences who have not read any verse since grammar school. They listen, they like it, they come back for more. It demands of poetry, however deep and complex, something of a public surface, like the plays of Shakespeare that had stuff for everybody, the commonalty, the middle class, the nobility, the intellectuals.

Jazz gives poetry, too, the rhythms of itself, so expressive of the world we live in, and it gives it the inspiration of the jazz world, with its hard simple morality and its direct honesty — especially its erotic honesty. Fish or cut bait. Poetry gives modern jazz a verbal content infinitely superior to the silly falsities of the typical Tin Pan Alley lyric. It provides people who do not understand music technically something to hook onto — something to lead them into the complex world of modern jazz — as serious and as artistically important as any music being produced today. And then, the reciting, rather than singing voice, if properly managed, swings more than an awful lot of vocalists. As you may know, most jazz men like two singers — Frankie and Ella. With a poet who understands what is going on, they are not at the mercy of a vocalist who wants just to vocalize and who looks on the band as a necessary evil at best. Too, the emotional complexity of good poetry provides the musician with continuous creative stimulus, but at the same time gives him the widest possible creative freedom.

All this requires skill. Like if you just want to blow a lot of crazy words, man, if you think jazz is jungle music while the missionary soup comes to a boil, if you believe in the jazz myth of the hipster, you are going to fall on your face. Charlie Parker, or many younger men, are just as sophisticated artists as T.S. Eliot, and in some cases better, and have a lot more kinship with Couperin than with the King of the Cannibal Isles. And the combination of jazz and poetry requires good poetry, competent recitation, everybody in the group really digging what everybody else is doing, and, of course, real tasty music. Then it’s great, and everybody loves it, specially you, baby.


posted by R J Noriega at 3:57 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Jazz Poetry part 3
Jazz Poetry

by Kenneth Rexroth

Over a hundred years ago the French poet, Charles Cros, the man who invented the phonograph, recited his poetry to the hot music of a bal musette band. Some of his pieces, especially the very funny “The Dry Herring,” are still in the repertory of café entertainers over there. In the twenties Langston Hughes, Maxwell Bodenheim and myself recited poetry to the jazz of the time. A few years back, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Lipton and I revived it in California. For a while it was a fad. The Beatniks took it up. Some pretty awful stuff was committed in joints around the country. Now the fad has died away and the permanent, solid achievements remain. The form is not going to revolutionize either jazz or poetry, but it is going to stay with us, and both jazz and poetry are going to have one new way of expressing themselves, and so are going to be just a little richer. This is as it should be, because jazz poetry is fun to listen to, and it is even greater fun to do.

During the past four years I have worked around the country with all kinds of top-notch bands. Every one of these dates has been a sheer joy. But always at last I have come home to San Francisco and “my” band. Somehow we seem to go together like ham and eggs. We know each other thoroughly. We are always with it. It’s not just that nobody gets lost too far out. We know perfectly how to bring out each other’s best points. We know what we are doing.

What are we doing? Nothing freakish. Nothing outrageous. Nothing really new. Not just the people I mentioned before, but the “talking blues,” recitations of poetry as part of the service in storefront churches, highbrow music like Stravinsky’s Persephone and Walton’s Facade, there is nothing strange about the form, it has a long history in both jazz, spirituals and classical music. It is not singing or chanting. It is not matched to the notes in the strict way a song is. The point is that is gives a freer relationship, one which gives the musicians more chance for invention, for individual expression and development. Again, modern jazz is much better stuff than many of the popular lyrics that go with the tunes on which it is based. Some of these are pretty silly. We think that good poetry gives jazz words that match its own importance. Then, too, the combination of poetry and jazz, with the poet reciting, gives the poet a new kind of audience. Not necessarily a bigger one, but a more normal one — ordinary people out for the evening, looking for civilized entertainment. It takes the poet out of the bookish, academic world and forces him to compete with “acrobats, trained dogs, and Singer’s Midgets” as they used to say in the days of vaudeville. Is this bad? I think not. Precisely what is wrong with the modern poet is the lack of a living, flesh and blood connection with his audiences. Only in modern times has poetry become a bookish art. In its best days Homer and the Troubadours recited their poetry to music in just this way.

How do we do it? We certainly don’t just spontaneously blow off the top of our heads. Most of these pieces are standard tunes, carefully rehearsed many times with the poet until we’ve got a good clear rich head arrangement. We don’t write it down, because we want to keep as much spontaneity and invention as possible, but at the same time we want plenty of substance to the music, and, of course, we want poet and band to “go together.” I have chosen poems which are about the same things as most popular songs and blues and which are simple enough so that they can be put across to the average audience in a jazz room. Maybe now that the medium has caught on, as it certainly has, we can go on and try “deeper,” more complicated poetry. I use poetry from all times and places, again to show that nothing is foreign to jazz treatment. Poets of all times and places have always sung, “I loved him but he went away.” “Come to my arms, we ain’t a gonna live forever.” “I wish I’d never met you.”

Why do we do it? No theories. We do it because we like to. It’s fun


posted by R J Noriega at 3:55 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Jazz Poetry part 2
Jazz Poetry
by Kenneth Rexroth

Things are beginning to get out of hand. The other day Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic, said to me that he expected any day to see ads in the trade papers: “JAZZ POET: blues, ballad, upbeat, free verse or rhyme. Have tux. Will travel.” And T.S. Eliot touring the kerosene circuit with Little Richard and the Harlem Globetrotters. Crazes are usually pretty empty, sterile things. It would be a pity if incompetents looking for a fast buck turned this into a temporary social disease like pee-wee golf or swallowing goldfish.

I, for one, take it very seriously indeed. I started doing it long ago in the Green Mask in Chicago to Frankie Melrose’s piano and anybody else who wandered in to blow. The music was pretty gut-bucket usually, sort of paleo-funky, if you dig, and much of the poetry was Service, Sandburg, even Swinburne, but some of it wasn’t. The Waste Land was read to jazz, all of it, shortly after it appeared. Bert Williams and Bert Savoy were both in the audience and thought it was a gasser . . . the cat’s whiskers it was then.

I read poetry to jazz because I like to. I like poetry. I like to read to people. I like jazz. The people like the combination. But there’s more to it than that. Poetry and jazz gain new and different dimensions in association. Poetry has always gained by association with music . . . ancient China, Japan, India, Greece, the troubadours and minnesingers and scalds. Not just as lyrics for songs, but also as recitation. The Homeric poems were recited in this way. There was a special profession for doing it called rhetors. In a sense poetry and jazz as such began about mid-nineteenth century with a friend of Baudelaire and Verlaine, Charles Cros, who recited his poems to the jivy music of the three-piece bands of the bals musettes and cafés chantants. He was a very great and very wise poet as well. This should set to rest the cooked-up dispute as to who invented it. I am sure I didn’t and, as I say, I started in the early twenties.

Why to jazz specifically? Well, I, for one, don’t make any distinction between jazz and “serious music.” Jazz is serious music; some people think it is the only American music worth taking seriously. Not in lush or brutal clip joints, but in the best jazz rooms and concerts, poetry gains from jazz an audience of widely diversified character, people who are seriously concerned with music, but who do not ordinarily read verse and who care nothing for the conflicts and rituals of the literary scene. The audience poetry has today, its official audience, is what is killing it. And, of course, the poet himself gains by the test of popular presentation. Naturally all poetry is not, nor should it be, able to meet this test. But we could do with more. Jazz gains by a new vocal content which can match its own seriousness, depth and complexity. Some jazz is “abstract” like Bach, but most of it is a kind of “program music” like Stravinsky, and obviously the better the program — all other things considered — the better the results. I might mention that Stravinsky’s Persephone does not differ formally from what we are trying to do. Poetry and jazz is not a gimmick, a freak gig, something for the sockless cats and the unwashed chicks of the marijuana circuit. It is not new, but as old as music and poetry, and to be treated with the dignity and respect, by performers and audience respectively, which those ancient expressions of mankind should always merit.

I think that, by and large, poetry is a dying art in modern civilization, dying for lack of a significant audience. Kids who can’t make the team or build a hot rod or toss chicks around in the air jitterbugging tend to gravitate to “The Lit.” and thence to the reputedly adult literary quarterly. Poetry won’t get the chicks that even the poorest hot rod will, but in extremity it will serve. And like poet, like audience. It is not just the Babbitts who think there’s something odd about people who read poetry. I think so, and I know. Odd, and very, very few. And so poetry itself has become insufferably odd and cranky. I think this is due to the lack of living contact with the audience, as well, of course, as to general social and economic factors. There isn’t much to be done about the big factors by any one individual anyway, but it is possible to keep plugging away at putting the poet back into actual physical touch with a live audience. In San Francisco we have led the world in that effort. Today, more than anywhere in the world except possibly Japan, poetry is a real factor in the life of the community and poets enjoy widespread influence — not on literature, but on life.

Jazz poetry reading puts poetry back in the entertainment business, where it was with Homer and the troubadours. Even Victorian epics like Idylls of the King and Evangeline were written to be read to the whole family around the fire in the evening by papa — not, certainly, to be studied for their ambiguities by a seminar of five Ph.D. candidates, conducted by another poet.

The musicians get a chance to work with words that mean something, something approximating the really profound levels attained by much modern jazz which certainly does not belong in the banal world of the Tin Pan Alley lyric. Also, the rhythms of modern poetry are extremely complex and the problems they set the musicians are comparable to those he sets himself when he “takes off’ from the hackneyed rhythm structure of the popular tune. Actually, much modern poetry is too complex for jazz, which, aficionados to the contrary, is not as complicated as much quite ordinary classical music.

There is a widespread belief that real jazz is just blown, spontaneously, out of nowhere, and that if it isn’t improvised it isn’t jazz. Nothing could be less true. The most spontaneous improvisation works with an immense repertory of stereotyped patterns, melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, which every musician knows, and into which he pours the new life of the immediate performance as he goes along. At any given moment everybody in the band has a pretty clear idea of what is going to happen next. By very definition the great swing bands were elaborately arranged and exhaustively rehearsed. So the idea that you can just get up in front of a band and everybody blow poetry and sounds out of dreams is just plain silly.

We have found that the effects we want are obtained by making sure that each musician knows exactly what the poet is doing — what he means, and what technical effects he employs, for instance the rhythms of his speech, to put his meaning across. Each musician has a sheet with the text in front of him, which he also uses as a cue sheet and for all sorts of other marginal musical notation. Then comes plenty of careful rehearsal, each one taped and played back and carefully analyzed. Rehearsals are pretty elaborate, far more finicky than the average band rehearsal, but the constant effort is to increase spontaneity, not to limit it. We find, like all artists, that you have to work hard to earn freedom of expression. One thing, there is very little room for the intensely competitive self-expression of the bop era. We don’t try to blow each other down. We find that jazz poetry is an exacting, cooperative, precision effort, like mountaineering. Everybody has to be perfectly coordinated; there is no place for the bitter musical dogfights immortalized on some bop records; everybody has to be as socialized as six men on a rope working across the face of a cliff.

I, for one, have tried to treat the voice as another instrument in the band. Whenever the voice takes on the character of a solo singer or the band sinks to background music, we feel we have failed, and we scrap that effort and start over. You can readily see that, contrary to popular belief, this poetry and jazz combination is harder work than either of the arts taken separately. So, as a warning to other poets and musicians, if you don’t work, but hard, you are going to fall on your face. It’s time and trouble, but the final product is worth it; what they call the creative satisfactions are terrific, a real joy, and Lord, Lord, Lord, look how it packs them in!


posted by R J Noriega at 3:54 AM | Permalink | 1 comments
Jazz Poetry part 1
by Kenneth Rexroth

A little short of two years ago, jazz poetry was a possibility, a hope and the memory of a few experiments. Today it runs the danger of becoming a fad. The life of fads is most often intense, empty and short. I feel, on the contrary, jazz poetry has permanent value or I would not have undertaken it.

When it is successful there is nothing freakish or faddish about it nor, as a matter of fact, is there anything specially new. At the roots of jazz and Negro folksong, especially in the Southwest, is the “talking blues.” It is not much heard today, but if you flatten out the melodic line, already very simple, in Big Bill Broonzy or Leadbelly, you have an approximation of it, and some of their records are really more talked than sung. This is poetry recited to a simple blues guitar accompaniment. Long before this, in the mid-nineteenth century, the French poet Charles Cros was reciting, not singing, his poems to the music of a bal musette band. Some of his things are still in the repertory of living café chantant performers, especially the extremely funny Le Hareng Saur. Even today some rock ’n roll “novelties” are recited, not sung, and they are some of the most engaging, with music that often verges into the more complex world of true jazz. It has become a common custom in storefront churches and Negro revival meetings for a member of the congregation to recite a poem to an instrumental or wordless vocal accompaniment. I believe Langston Hughes recited poems to jazz many years ago. I tried it myself in the twenties in Chicago. In the late forties Kenneth Patchen recited poems to records. Jack Spicer, a San Francisco poet, tried it with a trio led by Ron Crotty on bass. The result, more like the Russian tone color music of the first years of the century, was impressive, if not precisely jazz. Lawrence Lipton has been working with some of the best musicians in Los Angeles for almost two years. William Walton’s Facade, Stravinsky’s Persephone, compositions of Auric, Honneger, Milhaud, are well-known examples of speaking, rather than singing, to orchestra in contemporary classical music. Charles Mingus and Fred Katz, two of the most serious musicians in jazz — to narrow that invidious distinction between jazz and serious music — have been experimenting with the medium for some time. The music has been impressive, but in my opinion, speaking as a professional poet, the texts could be improved.

What is jazz poetry? It isn’t anything very complicated to understand. It is the reciting of suitable poetry with the music of a jazz band, usually small and comparatively quiet. Most emphatically, it is not recitation with “background” music. The voice is integrally wedded to the music and, although it does not sing notes, is treated as another instrument, with its own solos and ensemble passages, and with solo and ensemble work by the band alone. It comes and goes, following the logic of the presentation, just like a saxophone or piano. Poetry with background music is very far from jazz. It is not uncommon, and it is, in my opinion, usually pretty corny.

Why is jazz poetry? Jazz vocalists, especially white vocalists and especially in the idiom of the most advanced jazz, are not very common. Most Negro singers stay pretty close to the blues, and there is more to modern jazz than blues. Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, there are not many singers whom all schools of jazz find congenial. Curiously enough, the poet reciting, if he knows what he is doing, seems to “swing” to the satisfaction of many musicians in a way that too few singers do. I think it is wrong to put down all popular ballad lyrics as trivial; some of them are considerable poetry in their own right, but certainly most are intellectually far beneath the musical world of modern jazz, and far less honest. The best jazz is above all characterized by its absolute emotional honesty. This leaves us with the words of the best blues and Negro folksong, often very great poetry indeed, but still a limited aspect of experience, and by no means everything, translated into words, that modern jazz has to say. In other words, poetry gives jazz a richer verbal content, reinforces and expands its musical meaning and, at the same time, provides material of the greatest flexibility.

How is it done, in actual practice? Kenneth Patchen has been working with Allyn Ferguson and the Chamber Jazz Sextet. The music is composed; it is actually written out, with, of course, room for solo improvisation, but with the voice carefully scored in. There is nothing wrong with this. Far more of the greatest jazz is written music than the lay public realizes. Some of even the famous King Oliver and Louis Armstrong records of long ago were scored by Lil Hardin, a very sophisticated musician. Duke Ellington and his arranger, Billy Strayhorn, are among America’s greatest composers. For the past year I have been working with my own band, led by Dick Mills, trumpet, and including Brew Moore, tenor, Frank Esposito, trombone, Ron Crotty, bass, Clair Willey, piano, and Gus Gustafson, drums. Recently in Los Angeles, I played a two-week engagement with a fine band led by Shorty Rogers. In each case we worked from carefully rehearsed “head arrangements.” The musicians had each in front of them the text of the poetry, and the sheets were used as cue sheets, scribbled with “inners and outers,” chord progressions, melodic lines and various cues.

I feel that this method ensures the maximum amount of flexibility and spontaneity and yet provides a steadily deepening and thickening (in the musical sense) basis, differing emotionally more than actually from a written score. The whole thing is elaborately rehearsed — more than usual for even the most complicated “band number.” I would like to mention that jazz, contrary to lay opinion, is not just spontaneously “blown” out of the musicians’ heads. Behind even the freest improvisation lies a fund of accepted patterns, chord changes, riffs, melodic figures, variations of tempo and dynamics, all understood by the musicians. In fact, they are there, given, as a fund of material almost instinctively come by. Even in a jam session, when a soloist gets as far out as possible, everybody has a pretty clear idea of how he is going to get back and of how everybody is going to go off together again. Then the major forms of common jazz are almost as strict as the sonata — the thirty-two bar ballad, the twelve bar blues — bridges, choruses, fillers, all usually in multiples of the basic four-bar unit, in four-four time. Needless to say, the poetry is not “improvised” either. This has been tried, but with disastrously ridiculous results, and not by me. On the other hand, several poets have read over their things once with sensitive musicians and then put on a thoroughly satisfactory show. I have done this with Marty Paitch on piano or Ralph Pena on bass — both musicians with an extraordinary feeling for the rhythms and meanings of poetry. It all depends on the musician.

I hope the faddist elements of this new medium will die away. The ignorant and the pretentious, the sockless hipsters out for a fast buck or a few drinks from a Village bistro, will soon exhaust their welcome with the public, and the field will be left clear for serious musicians and poets who mean business. I think that it is a development of considerable potential significance for both jazz and poetry. It reaches an audience many times as large as that commonly reached by poetry, and an audience free of some of the serious vices of the typical poetry lover. It returns poetry to music and to public entertainment as it was in the days of Homer or the troubadours. It forces poetry to deal with aspects of life which it has tended to avoid in the recent past. It demands of poetry something of a public surface — meanings which can be grasped by ordinary people — just as the plays of Shakespeare had something for both the pit and the intellectuals in Elizabethan times, and still have today. And, as I have said, it gives jazz a flexible verbal content, an adjunct which matches the seriousness and artistic integrity of the music.

Certainly audiences seem to agree. Wherever it has been performed properly, the college auditoriums, the night clubs, the concert halls have been packed, and everybody — musicians, poets and audiences — has been enthusiastic.

In the past two years it has spread from The Cellar, a small bar in San Francisco, to college campuses, to nightclubs in Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York, Dallas and, I believe, Chicago; to the Jazz Concert Hall in Los Angeles, where Lawrence Lipton put on a program with Shorty Rogers, Fred Katz, two bands, myself, Stuart Perkoff and Lipton himself, heard by about six thousand people in two weeks. Kenneth Patchen and Allyn Ferguson followed us, and played there for the better part of two months. Dick Mills and his band have performed with me at several colleges and at the San Francisco Art Festival, and we are now planning to take the whole show on the road.

If we can keep the standards up, and keep it away from those who don’t know what they are doing, who have no conception of the rather severe demands the form makes on the integrity and competence of both musicians and poets, I feel that we shall have given, for a long time to come, new meanings to both jazz and poetry.


posted by R J Noriega at 3:50 AM | Permalink | 0 comments
Can rap regain its crown?
By Steve Jones

Not long ago, rap dominated album sales charts. Now, the music that has been a driving creative and commercial force in American culture is struggling to get its swagger back.

The music industry is suffering across-the-board drops in CD sales, but rap is in a steeper slide: This year, rap sales are down 33% from 2006, twice the decline for the industry overall, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Five years ago, Eminem's album The Eminem Show was atop the Billboard chart, on its way to becoming the runaway best-selling album that year, with 7.6 million copies. Since then, no rap album has sold as well.

Established rap stars no longer are sure things in sales. During the past nine months, Jay-Z, Ludacris, Snoop Dogg, Diddy and Nas released albums, but only those by Jay-Z and Ludacris have sold at least 1 million copies in the USA, and only Diddy is still on the charts.

Rap's decline can be traced to a range of factors, including marketing strategies that have de-emphasized album sales in favor of selling less-lucrative single songs and short versions of those singles as ring tones for cellphones. But more important to the industry, there are signs that many music-buying Americans — particularly the young, largely white audience that can make a difference between modest and blockbuster sales — are tiring of rappers' emphasis on "gangsta" attitudes, explicit lyrics and tales of street life and conspicuous consumption.

Within the rap industry, there's a growing debate about whether years of rampant commercialism — Snoop Dogg now endorses Pony sneakers; 50 Cent peddles grape-flavored vitamin water — have drained credibility and creativity out of a once-vibrant genre of music. And there's concern that rap, also known as hip-hop, has reached an evolutionary plateau: After more than a quarter-century on the charts, it's no longer the radical newcomer.

Rap pioneer KRS-One, who just released Hip Hop Lives with fellow legend Marley Marl, offers a blunt explanation.

"The music is garbage," he says. "What has happened over the past few years is that we have traded art for money, simple and plain, and the public is not stupid."

Chuck Creekmur, co-founder of hip-hop news website Allhiphop.com, says rap once was known for creative storytelling and clever rhymes, but now is being undermined by a lack of both.

"A lot of these albums now are looking to duplicate the success" of whatever is hot at the moment, he says. "There is a lack of variety."

An industry force no more

Whatever's causing consumers to tune out, it's clear that rap no longer dominates the music industry. In 2006, rap sold 59.1 million albums, down 21% from 2005 and 27% from 2004. Sales are trailing those for country albums (75 million) and heavy metal (61.6 million) — genres that rap formerly overshadowed.

In 2006, for the first time in five years, no rap albums were among the year's 10 biggest sellers, a list led by the soundtrack to Disney's High School Musical, which sold 3.7 million copies. Compare that with 2003, when 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin' ranked No. 1 with 6.5 million copies.

This year's top-selling albums thus far are by American Idol rocker Chris Daughtry's band and jazz chanteuse Norah Jones.

The rap industry is pinning hopes on 50 Cent's Curtis, due Sept. 4, and Kanye West's Graduation Day, expected in late August, as well as releases by Eminem and Dr. Dre that could arrive before the end of the year.

But those albums may not be enough to salvage the sales numbers for this year, and it's unclear whether 50 Cent or Eminem can match their past sales.

A genre is born

Hip-hop was born out of DJ-hosted block parties in the Bronx, N.Y., in the early 1970s and evolved with emcees "rapping" over the beats the DJs played.

The genre hit the Top 40 with the Sugar Hill Gang's Rapper's Delight in 1979.

Rap soon became, as Public Enemy's Chuck D described it, "the CNN of black culture," encompassing everything from party tales to political commentaries, especially from the view of poor and disaffected urban youths.

Rap found an audience not only in cities but in mostly white suburbs, as well.

By the 1990s, a harder-edged version of rap that glorified gang life began to dominate music and influence youth culture. Its songs and videos typically depict violence and drug dealers awash in diamonds and platinum jewelry, champagne and scantily clad women.

Rap became a multibillion-dollar-a-year global industry, influencing fashion, lifestyles and language while selling everything from SUVs to personal computers.

Rap's declining sales haven't escaped the attention of its kingpins. Declaring that hip-hop needed saving, Jay-Z ended a three-year retirement in November with his CD Kingdom Come, in which he essentially cast himself as Superman trying to save hip-hop.

A month later, Nas decried rap's lack of originality on his disc Hip HopIs Dead:

"Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game / Reminiscin' when it wasn't all business / They forgot where it started / So we all gather here for the dearly departed."

Rap may not be dead, but it's significantly weakened, in part by its own doing, music analysts say.

The industry's longtime strategy of pushing singles to sell albums has backfired in the digital age, says Felicia Palmer, president of 4Control Media and founder of the hip-hop news website SOHH.com.

Digital sales have outstripped CD sales, but not yet to a degree that compensates for the price difference between a 99-cent download and a $19.99 CD.

A just-released survey by the website found 82% of nearly 700 respondents are purchasing fewer albums than in previous years, and 67% acknowledge that they have illicitly downloaded albums rather than pay for them. One reason: 69% say they're "not inspired by many albums."

"People have gotten smart and know that (record companies) usually put out the two best singles, and the rest of the album is usually garbage," Palmer says.

Labels need to do more to help artists build their fan bases with promotional tours, which help consumers buy into the performer and not just a song, says Michael "Blue" Williams, who manages Outkast and other urban acts.

"People like hot music, but we are still not making artists who matter across the board," Williams says. "So while the labels are screaming that the sky is falling, they are trapped in their own vicious cycle of having to chase each single."

Promoting singles means getting favorable airplay, and that's more difficult now that hip-hop isn't the "only contemporary music that matters," as it was just a few years ago, says Sean Ross of Edison Media Research.

"Three years ago, you wouldn't have wanted to be a Top 40 station playing Bright Lights by (pop/rockers) Matchbox Twenty while your competitor was playing Get Low by (rapper) Lil Jon," Ross says.

"Now, Top 40 has Daughtry and Gwen Stefani, as well as a lot of quasi hip-hop from artists like Fergie and the Pussycat Dolls that, for some listeners, fill the same need as the real thing."

The real thing may no longer be real enough.

Glenn Peoples, founder and editor of music industry blog Coolfer.com, says: "A lot of people who used to listen to rap are now listening to rock. Rock is really strong right now."

'The public has made a choice'

Part of hip-hop's attraction has been the assumed authenticity of its lyrics and artists, but now, many younger listeners "believe that so much of what the mainstream (rap) industry does is orchestrated," says Bakari Kitwana, author of the books The Hip Hop Generation and Why White Kids Love Hip Hop. "I don't think they have a lot of confidence in the music the industry is producing."

For years, increasing sales of rap albums effectively muted protests about some songs' promotion of misogyny, racism and violence. Now, dwindling receipts and fading interest in rap have provided what some in the industry see as an opportunity to rethink content.

"The public has made a choice," KRS-One says. "They're saying, 'We do not want the nonsense that we see and hear on radio, and we are not putting our money there.' Rap music is being boycotted by the American public because of the images that we are putting forward."

The rising angst about rap lyrics was spotlighted this spring during the fallout over radio talk-show host Don Imus' smearing of the Rutgers University women's basketball team. Imus called team members "hos," then later noted in his defense that the word is commonly used in rap songs to describe women.

Soon after, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons called a meeting of music industry executives. His Hip-Hop Summit Action Network later recommended that the rap industry voluntarily delete or bleep out offensive terms for broadcast.

Such efforts have drawn mixed reactions from rappers.

Master P, who built his multimillion-dollar No Limit Records empire on gangsta rap in the '90s, announced plans to start a new label, Take A Stand Records, with his son Romeo. He says he has been part of the problem and now wants to be part of the solution with clean, positive music.

That idea was derided by 50 Cent, who said he has no intention of cleaning up his lyrics.

"Music is a mirror, and hip-hop is a reflection of the environment we grew up in," he said at a news conference.

"If I ask you to paint a picture of the American flag and not use the color red, you're going to have a difficult time."

A new business model

Content questions aside, rap faces the same challenge that has alarmed much of the music industry: how to adapt to the digital revolution.

"What we have to do is figure out what the new music business is," says Kevin Liles, executive vice president of Warner Music Group, home to artists such as DJ Quik, Lil Scrappy and E-40.

"There was a time when an artist like a Jay-Z or DMX or 50 Cent would sell 4 million or 5 million CDs. But there's a new climate. Artists like Young Jeezy might sell 2 million albums, but 6 million ring tones."

Recent sales by rap star Mims reflect the problems facing the industry. His single This Is Why I'm Hot has done well this year, selling 634,000 downloads and 1.9 million ring tones, the 2007 leader in ring tones so far. But the album that contains This Is Why I'm Hot hasn't been so hot, selling only 231,000 copies. Music Is My Savior is No. 100 on Billboard's albums chart 11 weeks after its release.

Rap's early stars, from Grandmaster Flash to Public Enemy and LL Cool J, "touched on humor, politics, ghetto life and realities they faced," says music consultant Tom Vickers. "Rap has gradually degenerated from an art form into a ring tone. It's a hip catchphrase or a musical riff with a short shelf life. It has a novelty element that captures the listener's imagination, but it's not a song. It won't build a career. That's why we're seeing this backlash."

To rebound, he says, "rap has to look at the bigger issues confronting society. There's only so much bling the public can take."

The upside for rap, Kitwana says, is that so much of it "remains off the mainstream radar. You never know when hip-hop is going to reinvent itself, or when something operating out on the fringe is going to emerge and become the next new thing."


posted by R J Noriega at 3:46 AM | Permalink | 0 comments

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