So much time has gone by! Napoleon’s house—
He never came—still stands in the Quarter.
Time ends all the good living that
Louis the Sixteenth, after the trouble, never
Experienced, all the sights Andrew
Jackson never saw in Pirate’s Alley.
Ask the alligators about heat and history.
Out in the bayous we met a small alligator
Named Elvis. When we stroked his throat, he waved
His left claw at the world. It makes you think.
Alligators enjoy a world before the alphabet.
I don’t want to be who you are! I want
To be myself, someone playing with language.
Let us each be a sensualist
Of the imponderable! Let’s each do
What we want. I thread my way
Down alphabets to the place where Elvis is.
“The Day We Visited New Orleans” by Robert Bly from Eating the Honey of Words. © Harper Collins, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
It’s the birthday of musician Jelly Roll Morton, born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe in New Orleans (1890). He grew up listening to French and Italian opera, hymns, ragtime, and minstrel songs. He was a great piano player, and he apprenticed in the seedy bars and brothels of New Orleans. In addition to being a talented performer, he was a pool shark, a gambler, and a pimp. He wore a turquoise coat, a Stetson hat, and tight striped pants. He said: “I was Sweet Papa Jelly Roll with the stovepipes in my hips, and all the women in town was dying to turn my damper down.”
He traveled around the Gulf Coast, and from there moved on to the West Coast and Chicago. In the 1920s, he was one of the biggest names in jazz. He recorded major hits like “King Porter Stomp,” “Black Bottom Stomp,” “New Orleans Blues,” and the “Original Jelly Roll Blues.” He was fierce in his claim that he was the founder of jazz, and he is considered the first true jazz composer because he was the first to go beyond improvisation to write down jazz tunes. He engaged in highly publicized feuds with other musicians who claimed to be the King of Jazz, the founder of jazz or the blues, or any other title he wanted for himself. When the great jazz trumpeter Lee Collins went to record with Jelly Roll, Morton informed him: “You know you will be working for the world’s best jazz piano player … not one of the greatest — I am the Greatest.”
It’s the birthday of American poet, essayist, and translator Robert Pinsky (books by this author), born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1940). Pinsky was a dreamy kid, easily entranced by the sound of his fingertips against the headboard of his bed, which he credits with giving him an early sense of musicality. As a boy, Pinsky loved reading dictionaries. He says: “Read as much as you want, this word reminds you of that word, you could just wander. It didn’t matter if you lost your place. It wasn’t tyrannical like a story.”
And: “Poetry takes care of itself. All art does — that is paramount. In a survival race, I’m quite sure poetry will long outlast reality TV and Twitter.”
It’s the birthday of John Dewey (books by this author), born in Burlington, Vermont (1859). Regarded as the father of progressive education, his best-known innovation was what he called “learning by directed living,” which combined learning with concrete activity. He wrote Democracy and Education (1916), and he founded the New School for Social Research. He was a shy, scholarly youth; a friend said that ideas were like living objects to him, and the only things he was really interested in. When he was hired to teach at the University of Michigan at the age of 25, he constituted the entire philosophy department. He spent most of his career thinking and writing about education. He said that schools were useless unless they taught students how to live as members of a community; that they wouldn’t succeed in teaching children anything unless they were receptive to what children were ready to learn; and that they wouldn’t get anywhere unless they treated children as individuals. He once gave a speech at Michigan in which he said there was so much knowledge at universities because the freshmen brought everything they knew to college with them, and the seniors never took anything away.
It’s the birthday of cabaret singer Adelaide Hall, who broke into the big time with her wordless solo on Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call,” born in New York City, in 1901. She first met Duke Ellington in Harlem and by 1927 they were touring in the same show. She said, “I closed the first half of the bill and Duke was on in the second.” One night, Ellington told her he had a new song, “Creole Love Call.” Hall said: “I was standing in the wings behind the piano when Duke first played it. I started humming along with the band. Afterward, he came over to me and said, ‘That’s just what I was looking for. Can you do it again?’ I said, ‘I can’t, because I don’t know what I [am] doing.’ He begged me to try. Anyway, I did, and sang this counter melody, and he was delighted and said ‘Addie, you’re going to record this with the band.’ A couple of days later I did.”
She later explained her long and successful career in show business. “This is how you do it, my dear,” she said. “You get to know the musicians. You’re in the places where they are. And then you ask them if you can sing a song. Be very charming, not too pushy. And be prepared. Know your song, know your key. And sing it. And then someone will hear you and take you out to dinner and give you a job. And there you are.”
It’s the birthday of composer Charles Ives was born in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1874. His music is considered modern classical and is often termed “inclusive” because he saw no reason to exclude any style of music — Brahms, church hymns, college songs, Beethoven, gospel, singing at revival meetings, sounds of nature, military marches, ragtime — so long as it expressed his ideas. He said, “The fabric of existence weaves itself whole.”
Ives won the Pulitzer for his Symphony No. 3, with other noted works, including Piano Sonata No. 2 and “The Unanswered Question.”
He said, “Awards are merely the badges of mediocrity.”