Monday, April 28, 2014

Immigration: Rhetoric vs. Reality Oceans of ink, mountains of studies and millions of keystrokes have been offered in support or opposition to the issues of immigration but factors critical to understanding or resolving these complex issues are astonishingly absent. Besides the enduring human yearning for a better life current immigration has little in common with immigration in previous eras. Technology, politics, communication, mobility, social services, education, economics and culture in the 21st Century do not resemble those of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. This fact renders such analogies false. The two principle nations involved in our era are Mexico and the U.S. To begin to understand this movement of so many people a consideration of the motivations of the exporting and receiving nations is revealing. What are the motivations of the Mexican government in regards to this exodus? What are the motivations of the U.S government in absorbing this influx of people? The impetus for both countries is similar; their political and financial interests benefit. In Mexico it is a low cost safely valve relieving pressure in the system for political and economic reform. In the U.S. it addresses labor and demographic issues relating to policy and politics. Mexico enjoys the additional benefit of the repatriation of earnings back to its economy. In the U.S. it creates the demand for more services that are increasingly supplied by the government. From the perspectives of the governments of either country what it not to like? While the interests of the immigrants are self-evident some may ask: where are the interests of the American citizen represented? In short, that consideration is no longer required. Ask yourself what constituencies have the bailouts, quantitative easing and subsidies, benefited? Then ask yourself what constituencies have suffered from the same? Then ask yourself the same question in regards to the impact of immigration policies. It makes no sense to blame the immigrant; they, their parents or relatives sought to escape poverty so intense few in this country can imagine let alone experience. Actually blame is not the word. The right word is consequence and we have all played a role. We have ignored a world that became increasing capable, productive and competitive while we basked in the economic benefits acquired by America as a result of the global economic destruction of WW 2. We embraced lifestyles and policies that demographically hollowed out the human capital acquired over time. We allowed our politicians to insulate themselves from the consequences of economic, regulatory and fiscal policies. The result is that we are satisfied with rhetoric and emotionalism in regards to this issue (and much else.) The truth is the only rational acting person is the immigrant. The rest of us engage in willful self-deception, irrational hope or invective against the foe of choice. We have met the enemy and he is us. We have lived for so long off the productivity, infrastructure and human capital of previous generations that we consider our historic advantages to be a birthright untethered from history. If I recall correctly Winston Churchill said history is just one damned thing after another; another thing is here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Europe’s Golden Opportunity

Americans are often told, most recently by economist Paul Krugman, that emulating European policies on a broad range of issues would demonstrate the ability of the U.S. to become an enlightened and just nation. Leaving aside Europe’s outreach programs called Nazism, Fascism and Communism, a golden opportunity for another teaching lesson from Europe has appeared. The recent earthquake in Haiti is the case in point.

Europeans often claim that is precisely the human catastrophe of WWII that enabled them to evolve beyond their history and embrace non-violence, equity, fairness and social justice. The U.S. on the other hand they claim is aggressive, unjust and militaristic. A stark measurement in both capability and magnanimity of Europeans and Americans will soon be on display.

In the case of the U.S., the ability to project material, financial, logistical, medical and humanitarian assistance depends on its military capability. This would be its ships, equipment, basing, technology, heavy lift aircraft, human resources, etc. A case in point is the military contribution to the relief efforts regarding the Asian Tsunami of 2005. (For those surprised by the military’s global humanitarian role a little research is suggested.)

In any case, the rationale for Europe to engineer, build, finance, staff and deploy a global humanitarian capabilities, rather than relying on the U.S. military is self-evident. In fact to do otherwise would undermine many of the claims of enlightened, non-aggressive governance. Europe has the requisite wealth, capability, and expertise to build a fleet of relief vessels/airlift fully equipped, staffed and pre-positioned to respond to various disasters on a moments notice. It would be interesting to see if these efforts would enjoy wide based public support in Europe and political support in Brussels. The alternative of the U.N. is suspect as that organization continues to fail or at best falter on its own mandates.

To paraphrase the words of V.P. Joe Biden, (whom by his own estimate is a bright guy, just ask him,) “it’s time for Europe to step up to the plate and do its fair share.” It’s a win-win situation. Europe could put its rhetoric into action and demonstrate that there is no need for military dominance by any nation a position embraced by President Obama. What’s not to like?

Friday, January 1, 2010

A Look Under The Hood At NPR

Sometimes there is a wondrous confluence of events, circumstance and character that can reveal the true nature of people or institutions.

The NPR product “All Things Considered” is, in some quarters, considered erudite, insightful and earnestly progressive. It is well known for its empathy. I, with apologies to Winston Churchill, would say that if at the age of 20 you do not find NPR compelling there is something wrong with your heart. If at the age of 40 you still find NPR compelling there is something wrong with your brain. As you can imagine, listening to NPR is a rare occasion for me, so it was pure serendipity that I heard two broadcasts in which NPR revealed itself (A) not to be the sharpest knife in the drawer (B) woefully ignorant of its own biases.

The first occasion was during a radio journalism segment in which somebody at NPR decided that chronicling a descent into Alzheimer’s with the attendant collapse of life, meaning and love was just the thing to appeal to its listeners The gentleman in question, as I recall, owned a family greenhouse business and the show traced the insidious progression of the disease. It had gotten to the point where the man could no longer run his business or help in any meaningful way and was reduced to puttering around the greenhouse. In one particular sensitive moment with the reporter reaching out in an attempt to span the gulf of illness that separated the two, he commented that at least the gentleman could find solace in spending his days in the, low stress and healing atmosphere of plants in the greenhouse. In response the guy suffering from Alzheimer’s (that is worth repeating) the guy suffering from Alzheimer’s says in astonishment something like “Healing atmosphere?? The temperature in here is over 90°F and the humidity is 100 percent, it’s a germ and mold factory!!” There you have it! A man suffering from the deleterious effects of a horrid disease was more on top of his game that the guy from NPR, at least when it comes to 7th grade science and the ability to recognize the greenhouse environment for what it actually was rather what it was imagined to be.

The other occasion took place during an interview with a legendary British explorer who was by now quite elderly. In recounting his expedition’s struggle to reach their destination, the NPR journalist remarked that it must have been somewhat romantic/exotic to travel by camel caravan. To which the aged explorer replied to the effect that “we used bloody camels because that was the only way we could get there, if helicopters were available, we’d have taken the bloody helicopter!” The failure in both these instances by the journalists to even come close to accurately assessing the issues gives one real cause for concern as to NPR’s ability to understand complex issues. Then of course there was a Saturday morning when NPR was assessing a military conflagration and one journalist remarked to the other, “When are they going to have a war in a location we can pronounce.” This remark was followed by both journalists snickering. How’s that for empathy?

Now Playing At A Consciousness Near You

In the Matrix movies the experience of “reality” is a complex computer program downloaded directly into the brains of an unknowing and enslaved humanity. The electrical energy from these inert humans is harvested as a source of power for the machines that control a decimated planet earth. Most people think this “matrix” resides firmly in the realm of science fiction. In some ways, however, a “matrix like” false reality already exists. To see the underlying “programming” code of the “matrix” I refer to, one must cast aside the science fiction of the Matrix, and consider what surrounds you 7x 24 x 365. Aside from the “news,” two presentations of “reality” appear. One is pop culture with its fashions, values, morals, music, art, ethics, promiscuity, drug use and language. The other is advertising that often uses fear, envy, greed, lust, and insecurity as motivating agents prompting material consumption. The advertising and entertainment content of T.V., radio and the computer are the downloading interfaces connecting the programming (pop culture/advertising) with the hard drive of human beings; their brains. This transfer is via the data acquisition functions of the senses of sight and sound. What is extracted from people is not electrical energy as in the Matrix movies but something much more precious, absolutely irreplaceable and non-renewable, their time.

In the Matrix movies human beings are “plugged in” literally from birth. In real life this immersion takes place as soon as children can be plopped down in front of a T.V. By the time they have reached school age they have absorbed thousands and thousands of hours of programming depicting a worldviews with values, morals and ethics that stem not from history or the broader culture but from the minds of writers and producers, or the “programmers.” These few people engineer something like a computer program. They are practically anonymous and unaccountable. The public, for the most part, has no idea of what or who these people are but download the worldview of these people and their values into their brains everyday. The programming code is the social, political, sexual, cultural and economic templates of the writers and producers that come to life in the characters, scripts, plots or lyrics. Some people do not believe there are negative cultural repercussions stemming from these downloads. Steven Spielberg does. He severely restricted his children’s’ access to T. V. and the movies. The inventor of Nintendo didn’t allow his young children to play it. It’s taboo for their kids but not for yours. What do they know that you don’t?

The societal repercussions stemming from the assimilation of this programming are severe. One particular tragedy is the sexualization of the very young. I recall reading that the singer Joni Mitchell was horrified to discover her 5 year-old grandchild thrusting her pelvis in imitation of copulation (they call this dancing now) while watching MTV, prompting Ms. Mitchell to issue angry denunciations directed at the “creators” of the MTV downloads. Judging by the response of MTV executives, I do not think they understood her point. The CEO of VH-1, a teen focused pop culture conglomerate, said he is “selling a lifestyle that happens to have music.” Such candor is rare.

The “life-style” operating programs of certain segments of the culture, particularly the young, are primarily derived from media downloads and can lack reference to objective reality. One might think that I have a vendetta against entertainment or commerce or that like the Matrix, there is some sinister plot behind all of this. Actually, it is the logical outcome of an unprecedented historical phenomenon; the convergence of stunning technological advancements in virtually every form of human endeavor. This has created in America disposable income and leisure time on a scale without precedent. It is a phenomenon that no one has experience with except for a statistically insignificant few. There was a vacuum in mental and physical activity that has over the last 40 years been filled with the programming of the aforementioned "matrix." It is now beginning to define reality to a greater and greater extent with a sense of history and the experience of real culture receding from the consciousness of certain segments of the populace.

While manipulating cultures and people on a mass scale is not new, doing so with leisure time and material abundance is a first. As an optimist regarding humanity, I perceive the increasing evidence of unplugging. What that portends for the future is for another post.

“James Jamerson’s bass playing made a certain fabric of my life visual.”-Stevie Wonder

I could hardly believe it! There he was, live and in the flesh! The bass player whose musicianship alternately inspired, challenged or drove me to despair as I once again could not figure out what magic he was performing on my latest Motown 45. I would pick the needle up off the record and in disgust vow to switch to guitar, tuba, anything but bass! The year was 1966 and I was sitting in the vast expanse of the Fox Theater in Detroit attending the legendary Motown Revue. All night long there was talent galore featuring all the wonderful names and acts that don’t need mentioning, but I was there only for one thing, to hear and see James Jamerson, the heart and soul of the Motown sound. All the hits of Motown were performed that night. To hear the bass lines I knew so well with the added inspiration of a live performance, including bass solos was mesmerizing to a thirteen-year-old. Even today, whenever I hear Motown music, I immediately seek out the low-toned wizardry of Jamerson. It sounds as innovative and as full of life as the day he recorded it in the “snake pit” at Motown’s studio on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. Great music doesn’t show its age. (Will the same be said for rap and hip-hop?) Jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy said of music it’s in the air and then it’s gone. That is especially true of jazz, as it has been recorded less. When genius meets pop music, like it did with Jamerson, the work is amply documented because of the industry’s demand for new product.

What makes his music so unique? I think there are two factors. One is the integrity of the musical ideas themselves and then there’s the voice. Jamerson’s voice was his electric bass and it was like no other. That reminds me of an interview I read some time ago in DownBeat with the son of Thelonious Monk. He recalled asking his dad who he thought was the greatest or among the greatest of jazz singers. Nothing prepared him for the answer. He was expecting one of several familiar names. After pausing for just a moment, Monk replied, “Bing Crosby.” His son was stunned. He recalled thinking and I’ll paraphrase- my dad is Thelonius Monk and I just heard him say he thinks the corniest white dude on the planet is a great jazz singer!!!??? In asking why, Monk simply said that from the second Bing opened his mouth; you knew it could only be he. Whether you agree with Monk or not isn’t the point but it speaks volumes about Jamerson’s bass playing.

Considering the rather routine and humdrum role of bass accompaniment in the pop music of the day, Jamerson’s musical palette was full of color, shade, tints and hues. Expressed musically, it was a full-blown orchestral approach, rich with syncopation, augmentation, diminution, arpeggios, ostinato, motifs, obbligato, register transfers and harmonic displacement, all delivered with a jazzman’s sensitivity. Just listen to the Four Tops’ “Bernadette” or Stevie Wonders’ “I Was Made To Love Her” or The Temptations’ “ Cloud Nine” Pretty heady stuff for pop music bass playing, sometimes a little too heady for Berry Gordy, Motown’s founder, who from time to time took issue with Jamerson’s reluctance to play on the downbeat or with less syncopation. Is it an exaggeration to say James Jamerson was indispensable to the Motown Sound? After all, Motown was full of great musicians, many of them jazz musicians. Here’s what Smokey Robinson had to say, ”…. they used to hold up sessions back in Detroit until he came off the road, because none of the producers wanted to cut without him.” In truth, the talent of the studio musicians, writers and arrangers working for Motown ran deep. It wasn’t a one-man show. The technical innovations of recording engineer Mike McClain played an important role in the development of the Motown sound. Also, the introduction of 8-track recording allowed Jamerson’s playing to move to the forefront as he now had his own channel and was not mixed in with other instruments.

After so many years and so many new styles in pop music, does the James Jamerson mystique still exist? Not too long ago I was playing a jazz duo gig, an R & B band was also playing. Musicians will often stroll over to the next room and give a listen to the other musicians, as you never know what you’ll hear. These guys were much younger than I, but we struck up a conversation and after telling them I was from Detroit, it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to Jamerson. When I told them that I had actually heard Jamerson play, a couple of times, during Motown’s heyday, they listened with rapt attention. Why still the interest and the admiration? I could see it in the eyes of these young men. Virtuoso electric bass players are common these days and offer a stunning array of techniques and chops. I think if James was still around he may have replied like Lester Young did when a young saxophonist tore through his latest Bebop licks in order to impress “Prez.” After listening, Young simply said, “Yea baby, but can you tell me a story.” Jamerson was a storyteller. He captured your attention like a good novelist and introduced you to a world of his own making using musical notes and rhythms instead of characters to flesh out the tale.

Nothing lasts forever; times change and in 1972 Motown relocated to the West Coast. A great bass player began to lose his voice. The family atmosphere among the Detroit musicians was replaced by a more detached professional atmosphere of the L.A. studio environment and James’ role slowly became less central to the new pop music sound. Personal problems began to hold sway over him as he was losing his battle with alcohol, although he continued to produce much great music with occasional flashes of absolute brilliance. The flame of his genius began to flicker and his presence on recordings became less and less. He died in August of 1983. The last time I felt as sad about the passing of a musician was in January of 1979 with the passing of Charles Mingus

A book I have thoroughly enjoyed is called- Standing In The Shadows Of Motown- The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson by Dr. Licks (Alan Slutsky). In it there are transcriptions of Jamerson’s bass parts for the Motown tunes we know so well. A number of famous bass players and not so known studio bassists record these transcriptions. All the musicians are talented, but I can think of no better example of Jamerson’s genius than listening to these musical tributes. Every one of them is flawlessly executed, heartfelt and sincere but without the heart and soul of Jamerson infusing them with fire, passion and the imprint of the creator they’re only the shadow of a passing giant.

“….his influence is omnipresent.”- Berry Gordy

James Lee Jamerson Jr. (January 29, 1936- August 2, 1983)
Rest In Peace