Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year: A look back, a glance forward

The sun sets over the San Francisco Bay Area in this
February 2013 photogra
ph I took from Memorial Stadium
on the UC Berkeley cam

Tomorrow is the first blank page of a 365-page,

year-long book that each of us will author.

All of us start with a clean slate.

So, let's each take the time to write a good one, page by page.

In the meantime, here's a last salute to 2013,

 and a welcome glance towards 2014.

Remember, in the words of Ecclesiastes:

"The race is not to the swift,

nor the battle to the strong."

Life is to be enjoyed day by day, one at a time.

Here's wishing you and your loved ones a Happy New Year.

May each of you enjoy cheers, love and peace on earth

in the New Year ahead.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas 2013: Carols everywhere

Merry Christmas from A Tuesday Night Memo.

Christmas Time is Here

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year.

Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share.

Sleigh bells in the air
Beauty everywhere
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there.

Christmas time is here
Families drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year.

Lyrics by Brian McKnight © Universal Music Publishing Group. Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC.
Original instrumental version written by Lee Mendelson and Vince Guaraldi for the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Photograph of Christmas tree ornament by Michael Dickens, at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco, Calif. © 2013.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

David Hockney: A feeling of liberation in his art

David Hockney / Self portrait with red braces.
Watercolor on paper, 2003.

David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition, assembled exclusively for the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, is both expansive in its scope and monumental in its scale. Think big and you get the picture.

It's the first comprehensive exhibition of David Hockney's 21st-century artwork -- featuring more than 300 works of this celebrated 76-year-old British artist's work shown utilizing 18,000 square feet of gallery space and spread over two floors -- and it includes not only watercolor on paper and oil on canvas, but also iPad drawings and digital movies.

My wife and I happened upon David Hockney: A Bigger Exhibition on a recent Friday evening about three weeks after its opening and we were both impressed by how Hockney's work, which surveys the artist's work from 2002 to present, incorporates both the use of traditional materials and also evolving technologies.

"This exhibition illustrates Hockney's concentration during this period on two genres, portraits and landscapes, in media ranging from the complex technologies used to make the movies to simple pencil and paper," wrote Richard Benefield in the museum's Fine Arts magazine. "Like an artist alchemist, Hockney in one minute uses a modern digital device to make a colorful iPad drawing; in the next he shows us that he is one of our greatest draftsmen by rendering an exactingly detailed charcoal drawing of a forest scene in East Yorkshire."

David Hockney / Yosemite I
iPad drawing printed on paper (6 sheets)
and mounted on Dibond (6 sheets),  2011.
One can't help notice some very larger-than-life paintings -- big picture en plein air landscapes -- assembled on many of the walls throughout the Herbst Exhibition Galleries that were assembled by Hockney's longtime friend and colleague Gregory Evans. Many of these landscapes are grand in their size and include multi-canvas oil paintings and large-scale digital movies that were shot using multiple cameras, some which utilized as many as 18 monitors for their display.

"Not only does he make vivid a startling range of green hues in landscape paintings, but his drawings -- even those made on an iPad -- continually probe for marks, textures and patterns to register nature's details," wrote San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker in his review of the Hockney exhibition.

David Hockney/ Woldgate Woods, 26, 27, & 30 July 2006.
Oil on canvas (6 panels).

There's a little something of everything for everyone and a lot of Hockney goes a long way. It's the largest exhibition ever mounted by the de Young -- much of it is shown chronologically -- and it includes still lifes, portraits and photographic collages. Throughout, Hockney makes use of a wonderful sense of color -- he stirs our emotions through his exuberance for beauty and nature -- and he's a master of modern digital technology.

"Hockney might seem an odd choice for the largest exhibition ever in San Francisco's Fine Arts Museums," wrote Baker. "But on at least two grounds it makes sense: The Bay Area has a deep history of interest in and production of figurative art, and Hockney's work has much to teach us about observation and depiction that links to the long history of art."

David Hockney / Self-portrait with Charlie, 2005. Oil on canvas.
• • •
A Bigger Exhibition / Paintings, works on paper and video.
At the de Young, San Francisco, Oct. 26, 2013-Jan. 20, 2014.

All photographs courtesy of Google images, 2013.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Remembering Mabida: He was a universal symbol of tolerance and hope

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."  Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.

We were all saddened by the news of the passing of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president and an icon of peaceful resistance.

Mr. Mandela died at his home in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton on Thursday night at age 95. News of his death spread quickly around the world through cable news networks like CNN, in social media such as Facebook and via the internet, and in the days since, there's been no shortage or tumult of remembrances. Mr. Mandela has been memorialized as an icon, a radical, a leader and a luminary.

Beloved by all, Mr. Mandela was a universal symbol of tolerance and hope, a man of great heart and compassion. Following his release prison after 27 years of incarceration, Mr. Mandela led South Africa through emancipation from white minority rule and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

"Mr. Mandela's quest for freedom took him from the court of tribal royalty to the liberation underground to a prison rock quarry to the presidential suite of Africa's richest country," wrote The New York Times"And then, when his first term of office was up, unlike so many of the successful revolutionaries he regarded as kindred spirits, he declined a second term and cheerfully handed over power to an elected successor, the country still gnawed by crime, poverty, corruption and disease but a democracy, respected in the word and remarkably at peace."

In announcing Mr. Mandela's death to an entire nation, President Jacob Zuma of South Africa said: "Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our 
people have lost a father. His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him their love.

Regardless of our race, nationality or country of residence, Mr. Mandela will be remembered by many as the "world's kindly white-haired grandfather." His last public appearance was in 2010, when South Africa hosted football's World Cup.

World leaders across several continents were united in their praise of Mr. Mandela and their tributes were filled with superlatives.

• "A giant among men has passed away. This is as much India's loss as South Africa's." — Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India.

• "A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time." — Prime Minister David Cameron, Britain.

• "All of Canada mourns with the family of Nelson Mandela and the citizens of South Africa. The world has lost one of its great moral leaders." — Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

• "Today we say goodbye to a man who brought hope, a true hero who will continue to inspire us." — Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, Belgium.

Here in the U.S., President Barack Obama reflected on Mr. Mandela's life by praising him as a man of courage and compassion. "Let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived — a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice."

And, former U.S. President Bill Clinton noted that history will remember Mr. Mandela as a champion for human dignity and freedom, for peace and reconciliation. "All of us are living in a better world because of the life Madiba lived. He proved that there is a freedom in forgiving, that a big heart is better than a closed mind, and that life's real victories must be shared."

To have an understanding of Mr. Mandela's religious, spiritual and humanist worldview, one need only look to his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, which profiled his early life, coming of age, education and 27 years in prison.

"The story told by Mandela's life is not one of infallible human beings and inevitable triumph. It is the story of a man who was willing to risk his own life for what he believed in, and who worked hard to lead the kind of life that would make the world a better place," said Mr. Obama.

Mr. Mandela was also praised by leaders of the religious community, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who like Mr. Mandela was a Nobel laureate and a towering figure in South Africa's struggle against apartheid. He said that Mr. Mandela "embodied our hopes and dreams, symbolized our enormous potential."

At the Vatican, Pope Francis praised "the steadfast commitment shown by Nelson Mandela in promoting the human dignity of all the nation's citizens."

In San Francisco, the Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral, said that "it is appropriate to take a moment to thank God for his example and the profound influence for peace he life has had. ... We celebrate his life and will continue in his example to fight against institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality."

Praise also came from the streets from fellow South African citizens like Shadrack Motau, who accompanied Mr. Mandela on a tour of his Soweto neighborhood after his release from prison. He told The New York Times: "The man had so much humility. He treated everyone with respect and dignity, from statesmen to children."

By all accounts, Mr. Mandela loved being in the company of children. He spoke often of the importance that education played with shaping the world's youth. "Young people must take it upon themselves to ensure that they receive the highest education possible so that they can represent us well in the future as future leaders."

Those old enough to remember the struggle against apartheid have flocked for days to Mr. Mandela's home to pay tribute to South Africa's departed leader through means of joyful noise. 

"We should, while mourning, also sing at the top of our voices, dance and do whatever we want to do, to celebrate the life of this outstanding revolutionary who kept the spirit of freedom alive and led us to a new society," South African president Zuma said in a statement over the weekend. "As South Africans, we sing when we are happy, and we also sing when we are sad to make ourselves feel better. 

"Let us celebrate Madiba in this way, which we know best," Mr. Zuma added, referring to Mr. Mandela by his widely used clan name. "Let us sing for Madiba."

On Tuesday, in rain-soaked Soweto townshipPresident Obama, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and some of Mandela's grandchildren were among those who spoke during a four-hour memorial service honoring Mr. Mandela, held in the 95,000-capacity FNB Stadium (built for the 2010 World Cup) and attended by more than 100 heads of state and other dignitaries and celebrities. 

"It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well; to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth," Mr. Obama said in a stirring eulogy. "He changed laws, but he also changed hearts."

Worth reading for its comprehensive look at the life of Mr. Mandela is the 6,500-word obit which appeared in The New York Times on Friday. It was written by the paper's former executive editor Bill Keller, who in the 1990s was its Johannesburg bureau chief. The obit was eight years in the making and it included comments from a 2007 interview Keller conducted with Mr. Mandela.

Across a wide spectrum, many have shared their thoughts about Mr. Mandela's passing. Here are a few worth sharing:

• The Rev. Al Sharpton shared the sentiment of many, not only in my country but throughout the world, when he commented on MSNBC in the first hour after the announcement of Mr. Mandela's death: "We've lost one of the world's great citizens." 

• Muhammad Ali, generally considered among the greatest heavyweight boxers in the world  a sport which Mr. Mandela participated in his youth  said in a statement: "He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale. His was a spirit born free, destined to soar above the rainbows. Today his spirit is soaring through the heavens. He is now forever free."

• The American poet Maya Angelou, who unveiled a tribute poem to Mr. Mandela, shared her thoughts about his impact on the world with CBS News, saying: "He showed us how liberating it is to forgive."

• CNN's Christiane Amanpour, who is no stranger to reporting about world leaders, put things into perspective when she said: "Nelson Mandela was the towering moral giant of the 20th and 21st centuries. We will not see the likes of Madiba again for a long, long time."

• Finally, Kofi Annan, who is the chair of The Elders and chairman of the Kofi Annan Foundation and from 1997-2006 served as the secretary-general of the United Nations, wrote in a Financial Times commentary: "Almost 20 years ago, Mandela said South Africa had come as far as it had on the path to peace and democracy only because the world had set his country 'a moral example which we had dared to follow.' As we mourn his passing and honour his memory, the task for leaders and citizens alike is to dare to follow his example  in every corner of Africa and across the world."

Photograph of Nelson Mandela courtesy of Google Images, 2013.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Art for travelers: From traditional to whimsical

Whimsical art / This guardian dog is among
 the most 
popular Japanese folk toys.

OK, I'll admit it. Over the last decade, post 9/11, flying has lost a lot of its glamor and lustre for me. It's a tiring exercise to jet from one city to another no matter the season of the year. First, there's dealing with long queue lines to check bags and clear security. Then, there's more queue lines when it's time to actually board the airplane. These days, there's nary an empty seat to be found on most flights let alone a free snack.

Given the choice, I much prefer flying out of the remodeled Oakland International Airport than from the older and more expansive San Francisco International Airport (SFO). After all, it's closer to my home, and because it's easier to navigate Oakland's terminals, it's a less stressful setting for me. Unfortunately, when it comes to flying to Minneapolis -- which I do yearly -- I'm forced to fly out of SFO.

Last week, my wife and I traveled to Minnesota for the Thanksgiving holiday, which meant flying from SFO. We allowed ourselves ample time to drive across the Bay Bridge from Oakland to San Francisco and reached the airport about 90 minutes before boarding our United Airlines flight to the Twin Cities. With time as our ally, it gave us a chance to see and experience a variety of public art on display at the airport, something we usually don't have time to acknowledge or enjoy. Public art is becoming more commonplace among larger metropolitan airports across the U.S. and internationally, too. And, I'm happy to say that it not only brightened my day, it put me in the right mood for flying across the country.

Fostering an environment that is as entertaining as it is educational, San Francisco International Airport's public art program offers travelers -- and residents who visit SFO -- a chance to see a variety of paintings, sculptures, mosaics and environmental works representing a diversity of styles and full of vibrant colors.

At SFO, there's a permanent aviation museum and library that provide opportunities for learning about the development of commercial aviation and the role it plays in our lives. Also, there are fine arts photography galleries dedicated throughout the airport which enable visitors to understand the critical role of the city of San Francisco in the origins, development and evolution of photography as a fine art and means of expression. Student art exhibits and kids' art spots are also featured and included in various locations within SFO.

Visual arts humanize the airport environment and make it a much friendlier atmosphere. At SFO, the installation of art exhibits takes advantage of many wide open spaces. The works of art on display at SFO -- there are more than twenty galleries through the various airport terminals -- are curated through the auspices of the SFO Museum and the San Francisco Arts Commission. In 1999, SFO Museum became the first airport exhibitions program to receive accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums. Today, it is a widely imitated model for other museums that operate in public spaces.

A rotating schedule of art, history, science and cultural exhibitions can be seen and appreciated when visiting or passing through SFO. Now through next April, travelers venturing through Terminal 3 (departures level, post-security) will be delighted with a feast for both their eyes and their imagination with Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju. 

It is because I had arrived at SFO early to avoid being hurried for my flight that I was able to enjoy the Japanese Toys! From Kokeshi to Kaiju exhibition and to learn from it. Visually, the exhibit's toys and movie posters were full of bright colors and filled with whimsy. Vinyl kaiju figures, Ultraman novelties, Godzilla movie posters and a dress made entirely from plush Hello Kitty dolls are among the many items on display in the exhibition. From this enjoyable experience I got to see firsthand the remarkable evolution of Japanese toys.

Who says you can't fly and explore?

Photograph of Japanese guardian dog sculpture by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Selfie: An informal noun becomes an emerging word embodying the zeitgeist of 2013

Truth be told / I'm really not that great
at taking "selfies" with my iPhone.

OMG. Word on the street is the Word of the Year is Selfie.

S-E-L-F-I-E. Spelled with an ie at the end not a y. It's an informal noun (the plural of selfie is selfies) that's defined as "a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website."

By now, followers of social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are very familiar with this hip and happening addition to our lexicon. One need only probe the cluttered newsfeed of their social media platform of choice to realize narcissism is alive and well. Undoubtedly, they'll unearth selfies posted by their friends nearly every day.

Show of hands, is there anyone out there who has a smartphone who hasn't tried snapping a selfie? Truth be told, I'm really not that great at taking selfies with my iPhone. I'm much more at ease photographing roses or sporting events.

"Selfies lit up social media and dirty ones derailed political careers," I learned last week while listening to news of the award on NPR's "Morning Edition". "The word's come a long way since popping up on an Australian message board a decade ago," quipped "Morning Edition" presenter Renee Montagne. "It beat out binge watch, meaning marathon TV watching, and twerk. You can look that one up."

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, the cultural buzzword selfie perfectly captured the year 2013 -- even if it's only November and the announcement came before Thanksgiving and Christmas. Other contenders included: bedroom tax, binge-watch, bitcoin, olinguito, schmeat, showrooming and twerk. By the way, last year's Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year was omnishambles. 

"In a related story," joked TV comedian Conan O'Brien, "the funeral for the English language is Saturday."

Seriously though, The Guardian in London reported that frequency of usage of the ubiquitous noun selfie spiked by 17,000 percent over the past 12 months. In its Culture Desk blog following last week's announcement, The New Yorker labeled selfie as "an emerging word that embodies the zeitgeist of the year."

And for that reason, the Oxford Dictionaries has bestowed selfie with the honor of Word of the Year. LOL.

Selfie of Michael Dickens by Michael Dickens.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The little free library that's always open

Take a book, return a book ...  a simple guiding premise.

I had just bought the November Monocle, the bookish and dense global briefing on international affairs and culture, from my favorite magazine shop, Issues, where they were holding a copy for me. As I walked back to retrieve my car that was parked less than 50 yards away, I came upon a small, colorful structure that resembled a miniature one-room school house.

A closer look revealed something totally unexpected to me. What I saw was a Little Free Library in front of the residence at 38 Glen Avenue, just off Piedmont Avenue in Oakland.

The noted Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar and writer Cicero once opined: "To add a library to a house is to give that house a soul."

Although I'm not sure if this is what Cicero had in mind, after seeing this lovely and quaint rainbow-colored Little Free Library, built with repurposed wood and other materials, and filled with a few choice books and periodicals leaning against an interior wall, it left me wondering if this was the start of something new or a part of a larger movement.

So, I decided to find out more about Little Free Libraries.

Open morning, noon and night.
Did you know: Little Free Libraries are part of a U.S. and worldwide community movement offering free books housed in small containers -- some resembling wooden doll houses -- for members of the local community. According to a recent story in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, there are more than 12,000 Little Free Libraries around the world in countries such as Italy, Japan, Brazil and Ukraine -- even Pakistan. They have a website, http://www.freelibrary.org, and, they even have a dedicated Facebook page with more than 36,000 likes.

Other names for these little free libraries include: community book exchanges, book trading posts, pop-up libraries, and Noox (Neighbourhood bOOk eXchange). Anything that encourages people to read more is a good thing. Fostering a sense of community, reading for children, literacy for adults and libraries around the world adds up to a tremendous mission with a wonderful sense of purpose.

A friendly site in wintertime.
Even Hollywood has found a way to give a shout out to the movement's new-found popularity. Earlier this month, the new motion picture "The Book Thief", about a young girl's relationship with her foster parents, other residents of her neighborhood, and a Jewish fist-fighter who hides in her home during a period of heightened escalation in World War II, offered a special opportunity for Little Free Library stewards to spread the word about the importance of books by sharing photographs of their own little free libraries via Twitter and Instagram accompanied by the movie's hashtag #thebookthief.

The bottom line to this great community -- and worldwide concept -- is simple: Take a book, return a book ... as the sign says.

Oh, to have a hungry mind and to be able to nurture it!

To learn more about Little Free Libraries or to order a library, go to http://www.littlefreelibrary.org

Top photograph by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013. 
Other photographs courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Under optimistic skies

Sharing the beauty of nature / A First Prize rose
from our backyard garden.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American essayist, lecturer, preacher and poet, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century, was an optimist about a lot of things in life, such as the goodness of human nature, the goodness of the universe as a whole, and about our ability to know the truth. 

Emerson's intellect embodied the finest spirit and highest ideals of his age. Often, I look to the clarity of his words when in need of a boost in my own spirits. We could all do well to follow his wisdom in these gloomy times.

“Write it on your heart
that every day is the best day in the year.
He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day
who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.

Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.

This new day is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the yesterdays.” 

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, Collected Poems and Translations

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Reflections of a Happy Halloween

Chelsea Market, New York City, 2006 /
Still one of my favorite Halloween pum

As a kid, there are some things you look forward to each year like Halloween. 

Last Thursday, over the course of two hours, the kids -- white, black, Asian, Hispanic -- were out in great numbers in our Oakland neighborhood, a microcosm of the city at large, full of enthusiasm and dressed in wonderful and creative -- even traditional -- costumes. 

Dressing up as a ghost or witch is still quite popular as well as going trick-or-treating decked out as a super hero like Batman, Spiderman or Superman. Darth Vader and Harry Potter still garner a lot of attention, thanks to their movie-star appeal, and both remain among my favorites. As a kid, I remember dressing up as an astronaut one year back when kids wanted to grow up to be astronauts and fly to the moon. 

This year, we were surprised when a girl and a boy, both about 11 or 12-years-old, came to our door, together, dressed as a carton of milk and a jar of pickles. Maybe, they were influenced just a little bit by Trader Joe's, one of our local grocery stores? I don't remember if the boy's label said soy, low fat or skim, but any of them would have been appropriate by Bay Area standards. Of course, it's always cute to see little kids dress up as lovely and cuddly tigers and dinosaurs, too. Whether homemade or store bought, imaginative costumes are what make Halloween a special occasion.

Lots of parental chaperones were present on this pleasant, autumn Halloween evening -- some in costume -- and we saw a few toting their pet dogs (a few in costume -- think "hot dog") and baby strollers for the littlest ones, too. Some kids were timid and shy, especially the youngest ones -- being coached by their parents, who were standing at the bottom step of our porch, to say "trick or treat", then "thank you" -- while others were very eager and outgoing. A group of five middle school-aged girls shouted out "trick or treat!" in unison as they came giggling up our walkway for all to hear loud and clear.

Halloween has definitely turned into a family event -- a sporting event, maybe? -- and this year, handing out 200 mini chocolate bar candies, as we did, was not enough! Credit the weather, which was nice and dry, and the San Francisco Giants for not being in the World Series like they were in 2010 when Halloween coincided with Game 4 against the Texas Rangers -- and the result is our neighborhood was quite lively with trick or treaters, more so than in most years. We could have easily given out 50 more candies.

As it turned out, we had about two dozen See's peppermint candies in reserve that we used as a fall back after our chocolate candies ran out, and when those candies were all doled out and there were still a handful of eager kids shouting "trick or treat" at our front door, we dragged out our piggy bank and gave out handfuls of nickels and dimes, determined not to leave anyone disappointed. And, surprisingly, the kids who received pocket change were just as happy and content with their "treat" as those who earlier in the evening received a Kit Kat, Twix or Milky Way candy bar.

Once the crowds had thinned, we turned out the lights, shut the front door, and took a walk through our neighborhood so we could admire Halloween decorations and absorb the evening's festive atmosphere, which included a lively and vocal pirate-themed house down the block from us that drew lots of curious attention. 

Finally, almost back to our front door, we were invited in by our neighbors across the cul-de-sac for a glass of Napa Valley red wine, a dessert of tasty baklava from a local Mediterranean bakery and good conversation about Halloweens past when our neighbor's children (one, who's now a college-aged freshman, and the other is a freshman in high school) used to dress up in the most creative and colorful costumes and go out trick or treating.

Looking back on this festive evening, less than a week after it all unfolded, left me in a happy, reflective mood. Indeed, it was a happy Halloween -- one of the most enjoyable evenings of the year -- and I look forward to the next one.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A spiritual journey: Opening hearts and minds

All great music is a gift and thus an instrument of God.
~ Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis, the 52-year-old Grammy- and Pulitzer-winning trumpeter, who is the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, has created the beautiful and inspiring Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration, a landmark collaboration of jazz, gospel, instrumentation and vocals, which unites secular and sacred music. While it is structured and progresses like a Roman Catholic or Anglican Mass, it's also rich in the African-American Baptist tradition, too.

"The theme of the Mass is that everyone has a place in the house of God," Marsalis said during a recent interview with the Boston Globe. "We're the most integrated nation ever, at least in the modern world that we know about. For our music to be, we have an identity but that identity is already universal. I try to find the core values that are so fundamental that they transcend ethnic identity. That doesn't mean I run from it. I embrace African-American culture and I love it and embrace it, but it is a part of a human identity. So, I'm always trying to make a larger human statement."

Damien Sneed, conductor
 of the Abyssinian Mass.
Recently, Marsalis took the Abyssinian Mass on a 16-city tour that included performances in Dallas, New Orleans, Kansas City, St. Louis, Augusta, Ga., and Washington, D.C, playing in both concert halls and churches. Last weekend, the 15-piece Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra along with the 70-voice Chorale Le Chateau, guided by the stylish and exuberant 34-year-old choral director Damien Sneed, who conducted the mass, returned to the "House of Swing" in New York City and presented Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration before three sold-out audiences at the Rose Theater. It was broadcast online via a world-wide webcast.

In watching Saturday evening's demanding performance online in the comfort of my living room, I became riveted by Abyssinian's libretto, its celebratory joy and its profound message. The choir was full of spirit. The orchestra clearly was enjoying itself. And, the spirited sermonizing from the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III, brought much charisma to the presentation. There was a whole lot of feeling in that show.

"The choir brings the fire and the choir brings the truth to the Abyssinian Mass," Sneed told NPR. "The choir brings the spirit, it's like the haaaaaa, the breadth of God."

Amen, amen, amen. O Father we go forth in Thy Holy Name.

Wynton Marsalis solos
during the Abyssinian Mass.
Indeed, the music in Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration is not just gospel and it's more than just jazz, too. There's also an element of classic music that resembles Handel's Messiah. 

The work originally had its premiere in 2008 as a commission in honor of the 200th anniversary of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. It made its European debut in 2012 at London's Barbican Theatre.

In a recent interview with NPR's John Burnett that aired on Weekend Edition Saturday as part of its year-long series "Ecstatic Voices: Sacred Music in America," celebrating the diversity and richness of sacred music in the U.S., Marsalis explained how different kinds of music are related -- the universality of rhythm -- showing how a rolling 6/8 rhythm is found in both African and Anglican religious music. Tapping his fingers on a notebook and humming "a complicated pattern," Marsalis remarked how "in a slower tempo, it would be 'Greensleeves.'" He demonstrates by scat-singing the melody. "All the musics are related."

Some additional observations Burnett shared in his NPR story about Marsalis and the 17 movements that comprise the Abyssinian Mass:

"(It) digs deeply into what Marsalis would call 'the soil' of the black church: its shouts, its dirges, its spirituals, it hymns of praise. With this work, he celebrates the seminal influence the church has had on the music of black Americans, and the continuing pull it exerts on his own artistic and spiritual life.

"Marsalis used the joyful stylings of the African-American gospel tradition to deliver a musical message of universal humanity. He says he tried to put it all in there: God and Allah exultation and the blues, Saturday night and Sunday morning."

Glory to God in the Highest! Glory to God in the Highest!

After the tour's final show Sunday night in Boston's Symphony Hall, Marsalis took a moment to reflect on many positive things that stood out, which he chronicled on his Facebook page.

"When Chris Crenshaw started to sing the Benediction tonight, the choir began co-signing him, 'Come On Deacon, Preach brother! Make it plain.' He sang these words with a powerful clarity:

"Lord, from you all things. Though we are many in life and death, we are truly one. Just the calling of your Holy name releases us to perceive the oneness in all, of all. You have given us, through your word, the divine thought. And the divine thought IS the divine manifestation IS holy action."

For Marsalis, "that is the power of prayer in whatever religion, or none at all."

After the two-and-one-half hour online performance concluded Saturday evening, I realized I didn't want it to end. Listening to Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration attentively, it brought out a lot of emotions and moods. It was very joyful and uplifting. It gave me pause to reflect upon what a blessing it was to be part of such a glorious experience and full-circle journey.


You can watch the entire Abyssinian: A Gospel Celebration via: http://wyntonmarsalis.org/live/.
Photographs courtesy of artsneworleans.org, NPR.org, kplu.org