MontanaWriter is now ClimbingSky

1 December 2013

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Three and a half years ago when I began blogging, I chose the name MontanaWriter. At the time, I had a vague notion that I wanted to blog and that it should have something to do with what I was working on anyway at the time, largely poems and short stories about Montana.

While I have enjoyed blogging under the moniker of MontanaWriter, for some time now have been feeling a need to “change things up.” There have been too many times that the name MontanaWriter has felt limiting to what I currently want to write and post. And not surprisingly, the name has led frequently to geographic confusion.

Given that, I began sometime ago to start thinking that I needed a new name for my blog. I tried on a lot of names, but none of them seemed to fit. They either did not feel like me or did not give me “enough room to grow.”

On a trip this summer to the tallgrass prairie land of Southwestern Minnesota, Sue and I tried on a lot of new names as we hiked across prairies under the big, open sky. But even with her help, nothing seemed to fit… until I remembered the phrase “climbing sky” which I have used in a couple poems and in a short story. As soon as I thought of it, and saw that it was available, I knew I had found what I was looking for.

ClimbingSky will still be about poetry, books, sports and the big open sky. It will keep much from MontanaWriter, but will also jettison much as well. The goal will be to make a stronger blog.

Take a look at ClimbingSky over the next weeks and months and let me know what you think.

Link for ClimbingSky.



Music Monday: “Sunny Side of the Street” by Lester Young

25 November 2013


Another dark Monday morning has me feeling melancholy, has me in the mood for the bluer side of jazz.

I have several recordings of Prez doing “Sunny Side of the Street.” This is one of my favorites.

It is Young at his best: evocative, melancholy, painfully human.



Recorded: New York City, NY August 4, 1952

Lester Young – Tenor Sax
Oscar Peterson – Piano
Barney Kessel – Guitar
Ray Brown – Bass
J.C. Heard – Drums



Music Monday: Lester Young, Nat King Cole, and Buddy Rich

18 November 2013
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The sound track of my young childhood home was determined by my mother who loved: Benny Goodman, Glen Miller, and Nat King Cole.

Here is a great tune from a great album featuring three jazz legends: Buddy Rich on drums, Nat King Cole on piano, and Prez on sax.

I cannot think of a better way to begin a cool November week.




Music Monday: A Lester Young & Coleman Hawkins Jam Session

11 November 2013
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An enthusiast at heart, my love affair with Lester Young and his art continues.

This is a great clip of a jam session with some jazz legends, some of which are pictured in the iconic Great Day in Harlem photo: Pee Wee Russell (on clarinet), Sonny Greer (drums) and, of course, Hawkins and Young.

Prez comes in slowly at the 3:10 mark, but is soon swinging. If the year noted here is correct, it is the last year of his life.

A swinging jam session seems like a nice “hot” way to begin a cool November morning.






Poetry Review: “Living at the End of Time” by Robert Bly

7 November 2013


The first snow of the year arrived here in the North Country. To our south and west come reports of 7 to 10 inches. But here it was just a dusting, a foretaste of the feast to come.

There are seasons to a year and seasons to a life. Each have their own beauties and pains, their own blessings and curses. Live long enough I suppose, and you will learn to appreciate and fear each after it own fashion.

My own bifurcated existence continues to keep me on my toes. By day (and some evenings) I am immersed in a world of technology. I troubleshoot computers, iPhones and iPads for a living (for two livings actually, since I have two jobs). It is a mechanical/concrete life of device triage and repair and tracking down software and system anomalies.

By night (most nights) I live in a world of poetry and nature and language and jazz.

It is a day divided: betwixt and between brain hemispheres and categories of time (the horizontal existence of chronos, and the vertical existence of kairos).

All human life in the end can be described by this dance between chronos and kairos. Paradoxical tensions give birth to human creativity. Our souls like the strings of a guitar it seems are tuned and played by the process of  this tension.

Here is a poem by Robert Bly on the dialectical nature of time and being human.



Living at the End of Time
There is so much sweetness in children’s voices,
And so much discontent at the end of day,
And so much satisfaction when a train goes by.


I don’t know why the rooster keeps crying,
Nor why elephants keep raising their trunks,
Nor why Hawthorne kept hearing trains at night.


A handsome child is a gift from God,
And a friend is a vein in the back of the hand,
And a wound is an inheritance from the wind.


Some say we are living at the end of time,
But I believe a thousand pagan ministers
Will arrive tomorrow to baptize the wind.


There’s nothing we need to do about John. The Baptist
Has been laying his hands on earth for so long
That the well water is sweet for a hundred miles.


It’s all right if we don’t know what the rooster
Is saying in the middle of the night, nor why we feel
So much satisfaction when a train goes by.


Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

Some say we are living at the end of time,
But I believe a thousand pagan ministers
Will arrive tomorrow to baptize the wind.

All poets in the end are, I suspect, mystics at heart. And all poetry, indeed all art, is born in those kairotic moments when the infinite breaks into the mundane. When the created is kissed by the Creator.

Art at its best reminds us that we are not merely finite creatures struggling beneath the crushing weight of chronos. We were created imago dei. We have eyes to see the infinite and hearts that can dance and sing along to the music of heaven.






Music Monday: The Prez and Lady Day

4 November 2013
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Lester Young and Billie Holiday had a true friendship off the stage that was obvious in what they did together on the stage. In fact, even their famous nicknames were gifts of friendship. Lester gave Holiday her nickname, Lady Day, and she returned the favor with Prez (“President”).

Watch Holiday’s face when Young begins playing at about the 2 minute mark of this video. It is a look that says all that needs to be said about what other jazz legends thought about Lester Young as an artist.





On seasons of doubt

1 November 2013

Considering Genius

November arrived in the North Country cool and wet. Overcast morning skies this time of year mean leaving the home in deep darkness. Something that gets more difficult to do with each passing year.

I continue reading about Jazz. I am still working my way through Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz. But have also started reading Stanley Crouch’s excellent book Considering Genius.

Crouch is a fine writer. Next to Ralph Ellison, the best “jazz” writer I have read yet. Crouch, of course, is famous for his political views which he sprinkles liberally throughout his essays.

I have read a fair bit of Crouch over the years, and have always admired his thoughtfulness, even when I have disagreed with what he is saying. Good writers and good thinkers are rare, the combination of both even rarer.

My listening life is still largely Lester Young, though I have recently added a little bit of Hod O’Brien.

The more time I spend with Young the more enthralled I am. It is the way I have felt in my life at times about Yeats and Whitman and Thoreau. It is the aesthetic equivalent of standing at the edge of the sea.

Everyone who writes goes through seasons where they doubt the power of language. It seems like I have been in one of those periods for awhile now.

I suspect that it is precisely because Lester Young’s vulnerable immediacy feels like the most “human” art I have yet encountered – in painting, in literature, in music – that I think I have been spending so much time with him of late.  His art has come to “feel” like a possible way out of this “season of doubt.”Only time, of course, will tell.

So for now I listen to Lester Young, read about jazz, and push words around on pages. Winter is coming… but that only means spring is sure to come.





Poetry Review: “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes

30 October 2013
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Langston HughesReading about Jazz and Harlem has led me to pick up Langston Hughes again. I first read Hughes in my early 20s while I was living in Chicago. His poetry was a perfect fit my urban-student lifestyle: days of ideas and libraries, nights of bars and blues.

Over the years, I have periodically picked him up again. Each time appreciating him even more.

It is not that way with all poets you re-read. Some poets only belong to a certain time and place in your life. They were the perfect singer singing the perfect songs at one time in your life, but as the years pass they seem merely quaint.

Here is a poem about the power of music.



The Weary Blues
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
      I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
      He did a lazy sway. . . .
      He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
      O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
      Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
      O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
      “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
      Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
      I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
      And put ma troubles on the shelf.”


Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
      “I got the Weary Blues
      And I can’t be satisfied.
      Got the Weary Blues
      And can’t be satisfied—
      I ain’t happy no mo’
      And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.



Listening with a pencil and my ear, these are the lines I marked:

And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

Reading about the Harlem Jazz scene, I have been surprised to learn that the Harlem Renaissance and the jazz clubs were not as inextricably mixed as I assumed them to be. More often than not, according to many sources I have read, Harlem intellectuals and jazz musicians paid little attention to one another. Hughes was obviously an exception to this.

Poetry and music are two sides of the same artistic coin. Both seek to express what is most inexpressible, and hence most human about us. Poetry uses words and the music that comes from language. Jazz uses the sound that pours from the human soul. Blues attempts to use both.



Music Monday: Lester Young and Charlie Parker

28 October 2013
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A few warmer days have followed our first heavy frost of the year here in the North Country. Days grow shorter, leaves leave the trees behind, and we hear winter whispering in the bare branches.

Here is a melancholy tune featuring two sax legends (the Prez and the Bird) that fit my mood well. It is also a great piece for showing two completely different styles for playing the same instrument.




Book Review: Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young by Dave Gelly

26 October 2013
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… there is no more consistently perfect body of recorded work in jazz than that produced by Lester Young between 1936 and 1941 – with Count Basie’s orchestra, with Billie Holiday and with various small groups such as the Kansas City Seven. (From Dave Gelly’s introduction to Being Prez)

Being PrezIn addition to listening to a lot of Jazz of late, I have also been reading a number of books about Jazz including Dave Gelly’s excellent book Being Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young.

Being a non-muscian, I have found over the years that people who write about music are not always able to communicate to those of us who cannot even read music. This has been particularly true with books about Jazz. Instead of making the music more accessible, they merely make it more intimidating.

Gelly is both a jazz critic and a saxophonist, yet he is also a pretty good writer. Not a great writer, but good enough. It is his subject, saxophone legend Lester Young and Young’s incredible music, though who are the star of the book.

Gelly knows Lester Young’s music, and clearly loves it. And it is this love of Prez’s music and Gelly’s understanding of Young’s impact on other jazz musicians that makes this worth reading.

What should a good biography of an artist do?

  • Deepen your appreciation of the artist’s work
  • Inform you about artistic influences and relationships
  • Take you deeper into an artist’s work
  • Entertain you along the way

Gelly accomplishes all of these in Being Prez.

Here are some quotes:




Lester Young on How he started playing first the Alto and then the Tenor Sax
All the other guys got their clarinet cases, trombone cases, trumpet cases and here I am, wiggling around with all this shit!… Carryin’ all them drums got to be a real grind. I decided I’d better get me a lighter instrument.”

“We’d all be ready. We’d be waiting for ninety years to get us to work, you know. And he said: ‘Wait for me until I get my shirt on, and get my tie on’, and all that shit, and everybody’ll be waiting, disgusted. So I told the boss man – his name was Art Bronson – I said: ‘Listen, why should we go through all this shit?’ I said, ‘You buy me a tenor saxophone and I’ll play the motherfucker and we’ll be straight then.’ And he went to the music store, got me a tenor sax and we split. As soon as I got my mouth round it, I knew it was for me. That alto was a little high for me.” 

* * * * * * * * * *

Lester Young on musical influences

“Frankie Trumbauer and Jimmy Dorsey were battling for honours in those days, and I finally found out that I liked Frankie Trumbauer. Trumbauer was my idol. When I started to play I used to buy all his records. I imagine I can still play all those solos off the record. He played the c-melody saxophone. I tried to get the sound of a c-melody on a tenor. That’s why I don’t sound like other people. Trumbauer always told a little story, and I liked the way he slurred his notes. He’d play the melody first and then after that he’d play around the melody.” [Trumbauer], that was my man… Did you ever hear him play ‘Singing The Blues’? That tricked me right there. That’s where I went.”


* * * * * * * * * *

Lester Young on the first time he sat in for Coleman Hawkinghs

‘I’d always heard so much about [Coleman Hawkins] ,’ Lester recalled. ‘I ran over to dig him between sets. I hadn’t any loot so I stayed outside listening… Herschel was out there, too.”" But Hawkins had failed to show up. “I ran a million miles to hear Coleman Hawkins play and he wasn’t there. So Fletcher Henderson ran out saying, “Don’t you have no tenor players here in Kansas City? Can any of you play?”… Herschel was out there, you dig, but he couldn’t read. So they say, “Red!” (they called me Red then) “Red, go and blow this goddam saxophone!” And I’m coming to see Coleman Hawkins, they told me how great he was!… So they showed me in and I get up and grabbed his saxophone and played the motherfucker and read the music and read his clarinet parts and everything. Now I got to run back to myjob where there’s thirteen people in it. Run ten blocks to get to ‘em!”


* * * * * * * * * *

Gelly on Billie Holiday’s and Lester Young’s Relationship

Everyone who knew them at the time, and has spoken about the matter subsequently, agrees on one thing: the relationship was entirely platonic. Billie went for dominant, masterful men, which Lester certainly wasn’t. As we have seen, he was shy and unassertive, whereas she was street-wise, quick-tempered and open-hearted. By all accounts, she treated him rather like a younger brother, although he was six years her senior.


* * * * * * * * * *

Gelly quoting John Hammond on Lester Young’s Improvisation Ability

He would launch himself headlong into improvisations which, with each new chorus, renewed themselves as if by magic; it was as though his energy and originality knew no bounds. Lester could improvise on the same theme for an hour at a stretch, without once giving the impression that he might be running out of ideas… His features evinced not the slightest emotion and his whole being was concentrated in the music.”



* * * * * * * * * *

Gelly on Jazz Recordings

Jazz music is unique in one important respect, namely that it was the first performed music to be widely recorded, and therefore not only preserved in time but heard beyond the culture which created it. Because of recording, the whole world can today listen to Lester Young playing with the Count Basie orchestra in 1938. This means that jazz recordings became definitive ‘texts’, and nowadays assume a position of prime importance to both performers and listeners. But this was not necessarily the case back in 1938.


* * * * * * * * * *

Gelly on the recording of “Taxi War Dance”

Lester’s main solo comes at the very beginning. Opening with a twisted quotation from ’01′ Man River’, hejumps in as though propelled by powerful elastic. The harmonic sequence is, in effect, a truncated version of the ballad ‘Willow Weep For Me’. The way he flips lightly through the chord changes, touching each one deftly while carving an elegant and energetic line, puts one in mind of a gymnast or ballet dancer. He arrives at the final cadence at the last possible moment, landing with a negligent little bounce. No one else could have done it because no one else’s mind worked that way. The thought and its expression are one and instantaneous, and that is what makes jazz unique in Western music.


* * * * * * * * * *

Gelly on the Saxophone and the Human Voice

…the saxophone, of all instruments, most resembles the human voice. Our voices convey far more than words. They betray our feelings, our age, our confidence or lack of it, even our state of health. They are us, physically and spiritually, and the uncanny parallel between voice and instrument extends to this as well.

* * * * * * * * * *

Gelly on Lester Young’s Army Experience

One of the most telling phrases in Lester’s private language was ‘I feel a draft’, meaning that he detected racial hostility. He had always been sensitive to such drafts and now this sensitivity expanded to obsessive proportions. To express it, he coined a new phrase of almost Jacobean resonance: ‘Von Hangman is here’.

* * * * * * * * * *

Lester Young on Jazz Concerts

In fact, Lester often said that he preferred playing for dancers, where there was a clear if unspoken relationship between them and the musicians. He certainly arrived at a fairly jaundiced view of concert audiences. ‘The people look up and they don’t know if you’re playing good or bad’, he said once. ‘Sometimes you’ll put on an act and they’ll clap when you’re playing bad.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Bobby Scott on Lester Young

 ”He was a night person…He entered the evening. Even the quantity of his words increased as the light of day waned. It was as if he’d climbed a ridge of small hillocks, then settled into a golden period, a span of bewitched time… His stick-like body, so worn by his utter disregard for its health, straightened to its limit only during those hours of music. And the music turned on his capacity of camaraderie and humor.”


* * * * * * * * * *

Gelly on Lester Young’s influence on the Beat Generation

 There were people who wanted to be just like that – cool, detached, undemonstratively eloquent. It comes as no surprise to find, a few years later, the name of Lester Young among the founding deities of the Beat Generation. Allen Ginsberg claimed that his archetypal Beat poem, ‘Howl’, was inspired by ‘Lester Leaps In”


* * * * * * * * * *

Gelly on Lester Young’s influence on Miles Davis

Miles claims that he learned from Lester the ‘running style of playing’ which has a ‘softness in the approach and concept and places emphasis on one note’.4 He contrasts this with the bebop of Parker and Gillespie, whose approach was more rather than less’, and who used ‘a lot of real fast notes and chord changes’. He on the other hand was seeking the opposite, ‘a kind of stretched-out sound’. Lester’s reluctance to chase after complex, chromatic chord patterns, but instead to find a way through them which emphasized melodic line, has already been noted. His recordings with John Lewis in particular owe much of their charm to this very tendency.


* * * * * * * * * *

Gelly on Lester Young’s music

 The beauty of Lester Young’s music endures. Even in its worst moments, when mere execution seems a near-insuperable problem, its very fragility conveys a unique essence. If there is a word to describe it, that word is ‘truth’.





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