Posts Tagged ‘Ted Gioia’

How an eminent Stanford poet saved an innocent man from hanging

Friday, May 21st, 2021
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Jazz scholar Ted Gioia is one of the latest internet refugees who have taken harbor at Substack, a subscription newsletter service for long-form blogging. He’s launched his column, Culture Notes of an Honest Broker, with a bang. In one of his posts, he revisits the 1933 death of Allene Lamson, whose husband David Lamson, a sales manager for Stanford University Press, was charged with the murder. Lamson was sentenced to hang, and imprisoned for three years in San Quentin prison before he was exonerated.

Poet with a passion for justice

“The case was based entirely on circumstantial evidence,” Ted writes. “A pipe found in the trash might be a murder weapon, although that was never more than hypothesis. His pregnant housekeeper might be Lamson’s lover—which seemed plausible until she gave birth to a redheaded baby who looked just like her redheaded boyfriend. Another woman in Sacramento might be Lamson’s mistress, but the evidence there never held together, and the prosecution didn’t dare put her on the stand during the ensuing trial. Above all, Larson’s character and personality—described by many acquaintances as ‘kind’ and ‘considerate,’ especially in his relationship with his wife—might be a charade, a violent, angry man hiding behind a gentle exterior.”

The hero of the story was Stanford poet-critic Yvor Winters, who investigated the case and wrote a pamphlet, The Case of David Lamson, that was instrumental in the ruling that the frail Allene Lamson died an accidental death. As Ted notes, the case, which dominated the news, was also an influential event for Winters’s wife, the poet Janet Lewis. The case led her to write The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) and two other novels featuring “cases of circumstantial evidence.” I’ve written about her here and here.

Nowadays, Yvor Winters is too little known, though he was a powerful and influential critic and a notable poet. Ted writes:

Novelist of circumstantial evidence

“When I studied literature as an undergraduate at Stanford, Winters’s name was still said with awe and respect, although he had been dead for almost a decade at that point. But, more than any other individual, Winters had put literary studies at Stanford on the map. His work as poet and critic was known and cited all over the world, conveying an authority and erudition that none of his peers in the Department of English could match in those days. It’s important to recall that Stanford wasn’t yet an ultra-elite institution when Yvor Winters joined the faculty in 1934. And it definitely wasn’t a university associated with poetry. But he changed all that—a list of writers whom Winters taught or mentored would eventually include Edgar Bowers, Thom Gunn, Donald Hall, Philip Levine, Donald Justice, N. Scott Momaday, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass, J.V. Cunningham and Kenneth Fields. People even talked about Winters as the progenitor of a whole school of poetry.”

“So I heard Winters’s name often during my student days. But no one ever told me about his involvement in a tabloidesque murder case decades before—or that he got a man off of Death Row. I only learned many years later about this strange crime story. And the reason for this silence, I now realize, is that many of Winters’s peers mocked and derided his fixation with a murder case and subsequent decision to play the role of amateur private eye. He was almost a laughingstock for this obsession—and it undermined the dignity both of Winters the professor, the Department of English, and the entire University.”

Read the whole story, “When a Famous Literary Critic Unraveled Silicon Valley’s Most Sensational Murder Case,” chez Ted Gioia here. (And if you go to Patrick Kurp‘s blog, Anecdotal Evidence, you can read Winters’s poem for Lamson’s heroic attorney.)

From Yvor Winters’s “The Case of David Lamson” (Courtesy Ted Gioia)

Poet Al Young is dead at 81: “He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met.”

Sunday, April 18th, 2021
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Dana Gioia with Al Young at the Sierra Poetry Festival a few years ago.

Poet Al Young, who suffered a massive stroke in February 2019 and never fully recovered, has died at 81. Jazz scholar Ted Gioia recalled, “Al Young was a treasure of the Bay Area cultural scene. I first knew him as a jazz lover who wrote movingly about the music—and I would run into him frequently at clubs and concerts. But he was probably even better known in the literary world, and Young would eventually serve as poet laureate for California. But he was also a teacher, a screenwriter, a novelist, an editor, and a mentor to many. In fact, you couldn’t find a better role model. Every encounter I had with him was an inspiring one.” Young was named California poet laureate in 2005.

Dana Gioia, a recent state laureate himself, had known Young since 1972, when Dana was at Stanford, where Young spent much of his career. Young had been a Jones lecturer in the Stanford English Department when both Gioias were undergraduates. (Young was a Jones lecturer from 1969 to 1979.) “Al Young represented the best in literary life. He was enormously talented in both fiction and poetry, though as he got older poetry came to be his natural means of expression. He was a powerful and persuasive reader with a beautiful bass voice which sometimes broke out in song,” said Dana.

“He was one of the most gracious writers I ever met. People were drawn to his warmth and humor. He inspired people. Eliza Tudor told me that once Al had accepted the invitation to speak at her new Sierra Poetry Conference, she knew the gathering would be successful.”

“I particularly admired Al in his term as California State Poet Laureate. Not many writers have a gift for public service. The role came naturally for Al. He liked to meet people – all kinds of people. He listened to them and laughed with them. He travelled to rural areas of the state that previous laureates had overlooked. He spoke in urban schools where he was a powerful role model of the African American artist. He became my role model for the state laureate. I loved being (and basking) in his company. I’ll miss him.”

Young has received the American Book Award twice, for Bodies and Soul: Musical Memoirs (1982) and The Sound of Dreams Remembered: Poems 1990-2000 (2002). He was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Whittier College in 2009. He is a recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Wallace Stegner fellowships, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.  the PEN-Library of Congress Award for Short Fiction, the PEN-USA Award for Non-Fiction, two American Book Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and two New York Times Notable Book of the year citations.

I don’t ask to be forgiven
nor do I wish to be given up,
not entirely, not yet, not while
pain is shooting clean through
the only world I know: this one.

Postscript on 4/23Berkeleyside published a terrific retrospective on April 21. “Remembering Al Young, a California poet laureate, musician, teacher,” by Frances Dinkenspiel, is here.

An excerpt: “…Young was not as famous as he deserved to be, said Ishmael Reed, a longtime friend, collaborator and fellow writer. Some of that had to do with the fact he lived on the West Coast, far from the star-anointing powers of East Coast critics. ‘He’s probably one of the most underrated writers in the country,’ said Reed, who published The Yardbird Reader, a literary magazine that highlighted contemporary Black writers, with Young in the 1970s. ‘He lived on the West Coast. The people who receive a lot of publicity live in the New York-Washington, D.C. shuttle area. It’s difficult for a writer like Al to achieve prominence with critics who see Northern California as a stepchild of Manhattan.'”

Here’s another: “In 2007, during his term as poet laureate, Young traveled around California, reading his work in 40 rural communities in the Central Valley and mountain areas in 11 days, often accompanied by a musician. For Young, poetry and music, particularly jazz and blues, were intertwined. He frequently wrote while listening to music (he knew so much about music he was almost a music ethnologist, one friend said) and incorporated jazz rhythms into his poems. ‘He wedded poetry and music together,’ said Sharon Coleman, a poet and instructor at Berkeley City College ‘He brought music to poetry in a very integral way.'”

Read the whole thing here.

Stanford poet, jazz saxophonist Michael Stillman: “Most poets are forgotten, but I remember his singular work.”

Thursday, January 21st, 2021
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Mike Stillman and friend.

I learned of Michael Stillman’s long illness when Stanford Prof. Makota Ueda died last summer. The prominent haiku scholar was a critic and biographer of Japanese poets. But one link in the chain of connection leads to another: the Japanese professor was also a mentor and  inspiration for poet Michael Stillman, who died on Jan 12 at 80 years old, having survived the decade into 2021. Mike studied the haiku tradition under Ueda.

I had met Mike a dozen years ago at (of all places) Stanford’s  Archive of Recorded Sound. We quickly discovered we had a mutual friend in Dana Gioia, former California poet laureate and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (and also a Stanford alum).  Mike was eager to show me his musical and literary preoccupations – as he wrote me: “not only the recordings project but the publications and activities associated with the Stanford Jazz Workshop and the Computer Center for Research in Music and Acoustics [a.k.a. CCRMA]. You may not be aware that I have published about twenty poems in prominent journals and textbooks, including “In Memoriam John Coltrane,” which now appears in about seven anthologies, one of them edited by Dana Gioia and X. J. Kennedy. Also I’ve been making recordings of soprano saxophone jazz and duo performances with piano that you might like to hear.” He had his fingers in a lot of pies, to put it mildly. Our long-ago acquaintance was all-too-brief.

Dana has written a short remembrance for a poet he thinks should stick in the public memory longer:

The poet Michael B. Stillman was one of the truly talented poets I knew at Stanford back in the 1970s, though he gradually wandered away from poetry.  He was also a terrific saxophonist and a doctoral candidate in English. He never finished his dissertation on Charles Tomlinson.

Mike played sax in a jazz duet around the Bay Area with a guitarist, Tuck Andress. One night Tuck met and fell in love with Patti Cathcart to form the famous Tuck and Patti duo. Mike ended up in Las Vegas playing back-up for rock bands. He had other jobs. He and his wife Sally helped run the Montalvo Arts Center and the Djerassi Foundation. They never stayed anywhere too long; they were bohemians. At the time of Mike’s death they were living in rural Washington. Mike was still playing music professionally. (He lived to see their sixtieth wedding anniversary.)

At Stanford Mike worked on a dissertation under Donald Davie. In the familiar manner of graduate students, he did everything but write it. He was house master of Branner Hall. He played jazz at Ironworks on El Camino. He recorded visiting speakers at Stanford.

His tapes are now in the Stanford Library. He even issued a series of superb long-playing records of poets and novelists reading their works. This series documents many of the best writers the Stanford community has produced– such as Yvor Winters, Janet Lewis, N. Scott Momaday, J.V. Cunningham, and Donald Davie. He also captured visiting writers, including Adrienne Rich and John Hawkes. Each LP had a fine short essay about the writer on the back cover.

Many fingers, many pies. (Courtesy Sally Stillman)

He also recorded an interview I did with John Cheever that was published in a short form in Sequoia. The full version appears in my book of literary memoirs, Studying with Miss Bishop. I sent him an early copy.

At Stanford Mike studied with the haiku scholar Makoto Ueda. He used to carry Ueda’s anthology, Modern Japanese Haiku around with him as his personal vademecum. Mike began to write almost entirely in haiku for several years. He produced a remarkable book of haiku, An Eye of Minnows, which I actually reviewed for the Stanford Daily in 1976. He did something remarkable with the form.

He used the haiku as a stanza for lyric poems–keeping its imagistic structure but allowing it to form larger units of meaning. The book, now completely forgotten, was remarkable.

I have consistently anthologized one of Mike’s poems, which has been picked up by quite a few other editors over the years. Here is the sort of work that Stillman once did. Like so many multi-talented people, he couldn’t focus on one thing for too long. Each stanza is a haiku. I was glad to lodge one of his poems into public memory.

In Memoriam John Coltrane

Listen to the coal
rolling, rolling through the cold
steady rain, wheel on

wheel, listen to the
turning of the wheels this night
black as coal dust, steel

steel, listen to
these cars carry coal, listen
to the coal train roll.

Jazz duo Tuck & Patti (Photo: Thisisshun)

As a poet, Mike has been forgotten by the world. Most poets are forgotten, but I remember his singular work. He wrote a great deal of fine poetry which has never been collected in books.

Postscript: Jazz scholar Ted Gioia also shared a story about Michael Stillman, elaborating on the jazz duo: “Michael was responsible for the famous husband-and-wife- jazz duo Tuck and Patti meeting—when he hired guitarist Tuck Andress and singer Patti Cathcart for his band. Years later Tuck and Patti were not just a married couple but a hit musical act, with their debut album on the Windham Hill record label rising to the top of the jazz radio airplay chart. Mike might have shared in that success, because he wrote lyrics to a jazz song that they recorded for the album. But at the last minute the track had to be dropped from the album because the estate of the composer refused to give permission. Without rights to the song, Tuck and Patti couldn’t feature Mike’s lyrics. I can’t help thinking this was emblematic of Mike Stillman’s career—he was involved in so many seminal creative pursuits, but almost always behind the scenes, and getting very little credit himself.”

Ted Gioia on music journalism: “Every editor who has tried to get me to dumb down an article is now out of a job.”

Wednesday, April 29th, 2020
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He wanted to be a jazz pianist. While studying at Stanford and Oxford, he practiced three to four hours every day to make it happen, as well as writing a review column every week in the Stanford Daily. But arthritis hit Ted Gioia in his early thirties, and his plans changed. Music journalism and scholarship is all the better for it. He’s just published Music: A Subversive Historywhich he calls a culmination of his life’s work.

Now has an interview with Todd L. Burns at the Music Journalism Insider. For the next ten days, you can read the whole thing here. After that, it will disappear behind a paywall.  An excerpt:

Where do you see music journalism headed?

Terri Dien

From a financial perspective, music journalism is in a state of crisis—it’s very hard to earn a living doing it. From a non-financial perspective, music journalism operates in a blissful utopian state, where you can do whatever you want and publish it online without having to worry about gatekeepers such as editors and agents. The challenge now is to take advantage of the freedoms of the digital age without capsizing on the financial hazards. How do you live in this utopia and still pay the bills? This is not easy, but it can be done—at least by those who are the most determined and have a high threshold for pain.

What would you like to see more of in music journalism right now?

I’d like to see more investigative reporting. The music industry is famous for its dirty tricks and low ethical standards. But I see very little interest among the “entertainment” media in investigating these. Perhaps it has some connection with the fact that the companies they might need to investigate are buying ads in their periodicals.

What would you like to see less of in music journalism right now?

I’d like to see less posing and preening—critics writing to impress other critics or (even worse) editors and literary agents, or (worst of all) the tenure committee or some other career power broker. The goal should be to serve the reader.

That may seem obvious, but just consider how often the reader is cast aside in pursuit of some other false idol. Let’s be blunt, some music writers just want to hang out with the celebrities they are supposed to critique, or use their positions to secure some other, even more craven end. I could share horror stories, but I’m sure you’ve heard them yourself. There are literally dozens of ways the reader can be shortchanged. Frankly, the pay is so bad in music writing that you can’t really blame writers for seeking out other compensations, but doing that will hurt the quality of their work and limit their ability to improve and develop.

I say all this as someone who has had to discover a way to keep vital and engaged as a music writer for more than 40 years. I’ve found it very helpful for me to think constantly about my reader, and also to assume that my reader is smart, discerning and hard to please. That has kept me on the right path when I might have strayed. True, it has often gotten me into battles with editors, literary agents and other influential parties. But in the long run, it proved right to engage in those battles, even if I took some wounds in the short term.

What’s one tip that you’d give a music journalist starting out right now?

Work constantly to expand your knowledge of music and musicians, and to improve your writing. The goal should be to develop into an expert who knows things other music writers don’t. You should take music writing as seriously as a doctor takes the study of medicine or a judge takes the study of law. These people devote many years of their lives to learning their craft even before they start practicing their vocation. Just because no one requires you to do this in music journalism doesn’t mean you shouldn’t impose this type of discipline on yourself.

What’s one thing you’d like to see more of from editors, in general?

I encourage editors to fight against the click-chasing mindset and the pressure to dumb down articles. I urge them to champion smart work over hot takes, and make it possible for writers to do their best work, even in the face of metrics that might suggest a more formula-driven approach.

I’ve watched this game long enough to see that dumbing down is the start of a death spiral that ends in a periodical going out of business. I note that 2,000 newspapers have disappeared in the last 15 years, but the two that have thrived—the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal—are the ones that resisted most strenuously the dumbing-down mandate. That should be a lesson. Believe me, readers want to rise to a higher level, but they need the editor (and, of course, the writer) to make it possible. If editors look down on the reader, they will merely ensure their own irrelevancy.

Here’s an intriguing fact. Every editor who has tried to get me to dumb down an article is now out of a job. Editors who want to take the low road to success ought to mull that over.

Ted Gioia on music as a survival tool: was it a precursor to language?

Thursday, April 9th, 2020
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Ted talking music, as always… (Photo: Brenda Ladd)

According to Spencer Kornhaber, writing in The Atlantic, “It might seem like a no-brainer that togetherness is a primary benefit of music. But think about that idea in relation to the ways of listening enabled by 20th- and 21st-century technology. When you tune your earbuds to a playlist on a crowded subway, or blast your favorite album alone in your car, what are you doing? You’re regulating your own mood. You’re occupying your mind. You’re enjoying an art form that captures the ineffable. These are great things. But if you’re plugging into a greater human whole, it’s only in a notional way: a feeling of closeness with the singer, perhaps, and with their far-flung fan scene, maybe. To unlock music’s pleasures, past generations had little choice but to do it in a more directly social way. And by past, I mean ‘very past.’”

What inspired the article? None other than Ted Gioia , we’ve written about him here and here and here, and elsewhere:

This thinking had been informed by reading Ted Gioia’s 2019 book, Music: A Subversive History, which took a sprawling and feisty look at songs’ role across all of human existence. What Gioia makes clear up front is that music in our distant past was a survival tool. To say it helped cohere Stone Age humans into communities is an understatement; music may have actually been a precursor to language. It also may have helped people scare predators away, or herd them so as to hunt them. Music’s physiologically entrancing properties were put to use both in warfare and in medicine.

What’s most difficult for a modern reader to comprehend is that early songs may have existed without some concepts we think of as integral. The notion that music could express a singer’s inner life had to be invented, Gioia argues. So did the idea that songs even had defined, nameable authors. “Note that I haven’t used the word audience yet,” Gioia writes in an early chapter on prehistoric times. “Certainly there were participants—there always are in rituals, where even those who remain silent are integrated into the proceedings … In contrast, the concept of an ‘audience’ for a musical performance is foreign to many traditional cultures. The hierarchies of modern-day entertainment, which radically separate performer from spectator, rarely apply to these situations, in which everyone is invited to contribute, to some degree, in the musical life of the community.”

He goes on, “For the same reason, music is frequently connected to dance in traditional societies—so much so that any attempt to isolate a ‘song’ and assess it in the same way a musicologist studies a movement of a Beethoven symphony is often an exercise in futility and self-deception.”

Read the whole fascinating article here.

What’s my upper during these times?  Maurizio Marchini singing “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini‘s Turandot during the tight quarantine in Italy, during the height of the pandemic. (You can read more about him here.)

Dana Gioia on the late Scott Timberg: a bitter symbol for those who have been marginalized by our “creative culture.”

Monday, December 16th, 2019
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A society-assisted suicide. He leaves behind a wife and son.

The Los Angeles Review of Books has a long piece on gifted cultural journalist Scott Timberg, who killed himself last week. He was 50. I wrote about it here, and my supposition was correct. He was killed by the “gig economy” he deplored in his 2015 book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, which discussed how digital technology and economic polarization were damaging American cultural life.

The LARB piece ends with a range of tributes, one of them from from a close friend, Dana Gioia, California poet laureate and former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts:

I knew Scott Timberg for over 25 years. He was not only a close friend and colleague — he was a constant presence in my life. For many years he emailed or phoned me nearly every day to discuss what he was reading or writing. In 2003 we edited a book together on the new literary Los Angeles for which Scott came up with the perfect title, The Misread City.

Scott was determined to give Los Angeles the careful reading that it deserved. I don’t think anyone covered LA culture so prolifically or omnivorously. He wrote about everything happening in the Southland — rock, poetry, fiction, film, theater, jazz, classical music, and the visual arts. He produced hundreds of articles, which had the special Timberg quality of being simultaneously open-minded and opinionated.

Dana Gioia: “something wrong with our culture”

In an age of cultural specialization, Scott’s range was invaluable. His commentary reflected the needs of the general reader who explores the arts with curiosity but finds little intelligent guidance in the media. Scott provided this animated coverage for nearly thirty years at a variety of publications, mostly notably The Day in New London, New Times LALos Angeles Times, and Salon.

Thousands of musicians, artists, writers, publishers, and presenters profited from Scott’s meticulous attention and advocacy. He was not so fortunate.  His professional career was slowly eroded by the economic and technological changes that transformed the contemporary media. Despite his immense productivity, he struggled to earn a living for himself and his family.

Scott combined his difficult personal experiences with his capacious knowledge of the arts and media to create a brilliant study, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class (2015). This underrated volume remains the best diagnosis of our current cultural dilemma in a society where “information” corporations have become as large as nation states while the writers and artists whose work they exploit can no longer make a living.

Scott’s suicide was a tragic act. He was so greatly loved and so conspicuously talented. No one can truly know what despair or temporary madness motivated it. But his death makes at least one thing obvious to any attentive observer. There is something wrong with our culture when Los Angeles, which now has more artists than any other city in North America, including New York, cannot provide a living wage for such a hard-working and gifted critic.

In his death, Scott Timberg becomes a representative figure, a bitter symbol for thousands of other writers and artists who have been marginalized by our much-touted “creative culture.” I mourn him personally and publicly. His passing diminishes the California culture he did so much to honor.

Read the whole thing here.

A postscript from Dana’s brother, the jazz scholar Ted Gioia, on his Facebook page (we also quoted him in our earlier post here):

Los Angeles Review of Books has published a collection of heartfelt tributes (from me and 18 others, including my brother Dana) to our friend Scott Timberg, a brilliant arts & culture journalist who took his own life last week, leaving behind his wife Sara and 13-year-old son Ian.

I feel compelled to add a few more comments here—because Scott seemed like surrogate member of my family at times, and his passing has left such a mark on me (as it has on so many others—I note that around 600 people have donated to the GoFundMe campaign for his family).

When someone you know commits suicide, the first reaction is disbelief. More than almost any other human act, suicide resists attempts to find meaning in it. Even so, in this case a kind of larger significance has been attached to Scott’s death by many who knew him well—and it started happening almost within hours of his passing. To many of us, his death seemed to have uncanny and disturbing connections with his professional life over the last decade, when he emerged as our leading chronicler and champion of the many people who have lost their bearings in the “culture business”—a group that, for Scott, included everyone from artists and arts journalists like himself all the way to the film lover who once worked at the local video rental store (before it closed) or the minimum-wage clerk at the indie bookstore.

Scott had lost his job at the Los Angeles Times shortly before he turned 40. As an outsider, I was mystified by this turn of events, because Scott was one of the finest arts and culture writers in the country, smart and passionate and capable of delivering insightful articles at short notice on almost any subject. He never recovered his bearings after leaving the Times. Thrust into the turbulent freelance economy, he continued to do outstanding work, but with fewer opportunities and smaller rewards.

He increasingly focused his attention on others like himself who had been squeezed and displaced in the shrinking arts economy. He drew on his own experiences in writing a book on the subject, the harrowing (even more so after his death) Culture Crash, published by Yale University Press.

A different person with Scott’s talents would have reinvented himself in a different career or setting. But Scott loved journalism—he believed it was the highest possible profession, almost a kind of priesthood—and he loved Los Angeles too. He loved them too much perhaps. It may seem like a gross simplification to say that losing his position at the L.A. Times caused his death, but there’s some truth in that. I believe he would still be alive today if he had been able to do the work he was destined to pursue in his adopted hometown.

The narrative that has emerged in the last few days presents Scott as a martyr to the cause he chronicled in his writing. From this perspective, he is the patron saint of the suffering culture professional in the gig economy—and his own death has turned into a commentary on his life. It’s easy to criticize this way of packaging a tragedy that (for me and others) will never lose its sting. But there’s a large dose of truth in it too. All the pieces fit together, almost too well.

More to the point, it gives some small circumference of meaning to something otherwise so meaningless. And, frankly, I suspect Scott would have no disagreement with such a framing of his life and death. He saw the challenges he faced echoed in the lives of so many others, and he cared deeply about all those who suffered in this way. The notion that his abbreviated life might serve as potent symbol for the compassion owed to those squeezed by the shift in our culture, would have given Scott a small bit of gratification. I know it gives me some consolation.