Lively jazz nights rekindle flame in Pittsburgh

A recent article that I wrote for CMU’s newspaper, The Tartan:

Interval Mondays and Space Exchange promise vivacious weekly performances

A city that used to be a veritable hotbed of American Jazz, Pittsburgh has seen what could be described as a process of jazz atrophy. Cultural institutions like the August Wilson Center and the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild feed off a legacy of jazz, not a vibrant scene.

Traditional venues, like CJ’s in the Strip District, have strict age restrictions (CJ’s is closed to patrons younger than 30) and prevent jazz from being experienced across generations. Additionally, WDUQ, formerly Pittsburgh’s only jazz radio station, changed to an NPR news station last year. There are simply not enough lively hubs for the cultivation of an innovative jazz scene in Pittsburgh.

In light of this seemingly atrophied jazz environment, two events in Pittsburgh reveal that the local contemporary jazz scene is rekindling: On Mondays, AVA Lounge in East Liberty hosts Interval Monday, and the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrenceville hosts Space Exchange on Tuesdays.

On what is considered the week’s dead night for entertainment in Pittsburgh, AVA Lounge offers one of the hottest jazz jams, incorporating silent film projections and an open stage. The weekly session was founded by pianist Howie Alexander in July 2007, and is now known as the premier event for jazz music in Pittsburgh due to the local and nationally recognized talent it attracts.

Typically, the sessions consist of two sets. The first set belongs to the Interval Trio (Alexander, Paul Thompson, and James Johnson III), while the second set opens up the stage to musicians in the audience. The jam session features both jazz standards and original compositions, and resident DJ J. Malls (also known as Jason Molyneaux) spins classic jazz vinyl during breaks. A documentary-style web series, called The Interval Trio & Friends, is currently being produced that focuses on the lives and sessions of the musicians.

In contrast to the Interval Monday jam sessions, Space Exchange at the Thunderbird Cafe is marked by an approach that resembles a New York City artist residency, something rarely seen in Pittsburgh. Saxophonist Ben Opie, drummer Dave Throckmorton, guitarist Colter Harper, bassist Matt Booth, and guitarist/drummer Chris Parker are the core members of Space Exchange, and they collectively oversee the programming for the evenings.

In 2011, the group decided to approach Thunderbird Cafe owner John Pergal for a shot at a weekly residency. Because Pergal has supported the group’s past efforts, this collaboration seemed natural. However, the group has actively argued that Space Exchange neither be billed as a jazz event nor as a jam session. As a result, patrons won’t find musicians casually strolling in to display their skills in a specific genre. Rather, they will find a variety of ensembles associated with the core members, rotating in and out of the Thunderbird Cafe, waltzing across the boundaries of styles.

Aiming to develop a lasting presence in Pittsburgh, the group draws on the public interest in some of the collective’s established bands like Opie and Throckmorton’s Thoth Trio, Harper’s Rusted Root, and Opie’s audacious free jazz orchestra, Opek.

Given the history of Pittsburgh’s local jazz scene, events like Interval Monday and Space Exchange give hope for a playful and innovative scene in the future. As it stands, jazz enthusiasts need not fear a continued atrophy of the local scene. Jazz is happening; now it is up to the audiences to continue sharing the experience.

Future performances at Space Exchange will feature Opie performing the works of American composers Thelonius Monk, Anthony Braxton, and Ornette Coleman, alongside bassist Jeff Grubbs and Throckmorton’s “Book Exchange.”

Link


Love and Comics

On Valentine’s Day, people everywhere shell out all sorts of denominations on flowers, candy and gifts. In honor of that most glorious consumer holiday, it would be seem to be most appropriate to highlight comics that are perfect for Valentine’s Day. Nevertheless, there are enough exhortations to purchase gifts at this time of the year, as such this column will not address what books to buy loved ones. Rather, the focus will be to examine how the traditional ideas espoused by Valentine’s Day manifest themselves in the cartooning work of three different authors, Charles Schulz, Jordan Crane and Chester Brown.

It’s important to start with Charles Schulz, the cartoonist responsible for Peanuts created the epitome of the comics Valentine in the little book, Love is Walking Hand in Hand. It was created as part of a series of Peanuts gift books that Hallmark Cards released in the early sixties. In creating this little book, Charles Schulz, the accidental king of all that is marketable,  birthed the  perfect comic for Valentine’s Day.

Love is Walking Hand in Hand contains illustrated minimalist aphorisms that express the vibrance of love in the mundane. The book displays an astoundingly bold usage of orange red, black and pink color plates. One would argue that given it’s boldness of color and visual simplicity, this book would likely not do very well in today’s world of print comics and picture books.

The color combination would seem to put the reader on edge, forcing them to struggle without much visual breathing room. Nevertheless, by carefully balancing them and letting the black ink rest quietly among the buzzing pinks and oranges, Schulz creates a warm and coherent space for the reader to inhabit for a short while.
At its heart, Love is walking hand in Hand is a celebration of the little moments in which love reassures its presence in our lives. The beautiful thing about this book is that Schulz preaches an all encompassing notion of love. Love is when someone takes a moment out of their day to do something nice for someone else, but is best summed up by his assertion that “Love is the whole world.”

What a perfectly reasonable message to be sending on Valentine’s Day.

One issue that Love is Walking Hand in Hand simply does not broach is loss. It’s crushing, but the truth is that everyone deals with it.

In most contemporary stories told in cinema and television, romantic love goes hand in hand with loss. Nevertheless, the sadness of the loss of a loved one is portrayed as a loss so utterly bleak that it ends everything. There is no life possible after that love. The truth is that, after great loss, one must face the absence of a loved one daily. 

Jordan Crane’s comic, The Last Lonely Saturday, explores the trials of and release from life after loss. Crane beautifully captures the delicate beats of the reverence that a husband pays the spirit of his wife. The story follows the ritualized trip that a husband makes weekly to pay respect to his wife and within no more than a couple of pages, Crane’s story retells a husband and wife’s entire history.

From the comic’s meticulous book design, its quaint size and the roundness of the hand lettered type in the first pages, a reader can definitely expect the story to be heart warming. Nevertheless, what the reader can’t expect is the grace with which Crane pulls at a reader’s heartstrings. While the story is rooted in the traditional American cliché of a pair of lover reunited in the afterlife, the story is told deftly. Without spoiling too much, Crane’s narration of the reunion of spirits is truly gripping.

Similar to Love is Walking Hand in HandThe Last Lonely Saturday is the kind of book that elicits an unparalleled delicately visceral warmth, even on the seventh read.

Now, those that may dismiss the works of Schulz and Crane for their seemingly hokey notions towards the idea of love might think they’re out of luck in terms of Valentine’s Day comics. Fortunately, though, they’re not.

Chester Brown’s Paying for It : A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being A John is the perfect reading material for the reader disillusioned with romantic love and its inherent possessive monogamy. In this book, Brown sorts through all the legal, moral and emotional arguments against prostitution. It is a sober and intense look at the moral and cerebral aspects of prostitution, both from the perspectives of prostitutes and the clients.

The book begins with a record of Brown’s slow disillusionment with the concept of romantic love. It then follows his carefully planned and budgeted forays into the world of being a john. Despite the documentary impulse that transcribes the minutiae of Brown’s experiences, however, Brown’s real concerns lie beyond mere observation. Throughout, he uses his own experiences to make the case for decriminalizing prostitution. In a boldly direct style, Brown expounds on his reading material, inquires after his friends’ stance on the morality of sex work, and, in one sequence, simply sits around in his underwear thinking.

In a conversation with fellow cartoonist, Seth, Brown reveals he is of the mind that, “the romantic ideal is actually evil.” At heart, it causes “more misery than happiness” and causes people to bind themselves for life to the wrong person simply to satisfy society’s dictates.

For the reader that wishes to dismiss this book as nothing more than a series of anecdotes geared towards rationalizing an often persecuted personal choice, Brown presents a series of appendices along with a girthy bibliography that address the full spectrum of issues involved with reforming the way in which Western culture thinks about the relationship between, sex, love and romance.

From Brown’s vantage point, the very moral pillars upon which Valentine’s day stands are inherently destructive and not worth indulging in if a society is to be deemed rational and understanding. In the end, though, Brown’s arguments will need a lot of time to catch on. Simply put, the instincts towards monogamy are part and parcel of Western society.

With so many different perspectives on love, it’s certainly hard to know which is the right one, Fortunately, though, there are plenty of cartoonists to aid in the exploration of the vast emotional territory of love.


The Collected Doug Wright: Seth’s Design Process

Holy moley macaroley! A recent article on the Comics Journal shares Seth’s design process on the beautiful The Collected Doug Wright. If you’re interested in a book designer’s process work, check it out. 

The book is a gem and that reads effortlessly and exudes a bold Canadiana. As an American interested in contemporary Canadian culture, I would say that in that department, Seth really hits it out of the ballpark.


Andy Bleck: Check ‘im out

I discovered Andy Bleck’s abstract comics 2 years ago, bumbling through the internet via Bill Boichel’s aggregated links on Copacetic Comics. The moment I saw them, I knew that there was something special. I saved a couple of files on my computer, not knowing that a year down the line, I’d be using them to explore the concept of abstract narration and drawing as the filtering of moving form.

Here are two examples of his work. take your time and then breeze by the comics to get a satisfying picture of the form. Can you feel the transition between panels? Does your world feel a bit more solid, piece by piece, each time a new figure appears in the second comic or is its delicate balance thrown out of place? You tell me. Learn more about Andy Bleck. Or simply check out many of his works.

A tasty treat can be found here: The drawings are of the Angouleme Festival of 2003. Frank Santoro had some links up on Comics Comics, but the links are no longer valid. I’ve never been to Angouleme, so I can’t make any judements on the validity of Frank’s comment regarding the ability of Bleck to capture the amount of time and focus that is spent during these festivals n the often unglamorous act of drawing. No costumes, just artists doing their thing. For me, Bleck’s line and the sheer amount of drawings show an emotional and tonal transparency. The energy felt makes its way on paper…


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