Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Larry Russell: still playing along in Mexico

I first met Larry Russell at the "Homage for John Ross" I hosted at Mexico City's Teatro de la Ciudad in February 2011. John Ross, the dean of foreign correspondents in Mexico, loved good jazz almost as much as politics. We decided we needed live music to celebrate his life.  Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins had heard Larry Russell play jazz on his saxophone, said he was great, and asked him to play. We were delighted when he volunteered his services to honor John. 

Larry showed up, set up, and with no drama played “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” composed by Charlie Mingus and “Round Midnight” by Thelonius  Monk.   I was extremely impressed.  Who was this US jazz great who just happened to be available in Mexico City and willing to give his time?

Larry Russell was born in Connecticut. At 14, already interested in a career in music, his mother took him to visit the big band leader Henry Jerome.  During intermission back stage Jerome suggested Larry talk to lead saxophonist Alan Greenspan (yes, later chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board).  Greenspan advised him not to put all his eggs in one basket. Though an accomplished saxophonist, Greenspan was apparently already practicing to be an economist.

Larry studied music at the New England Conservatory and at 19 was playing with the Boston Pops.  Though Larry enjoyed classical music he pursued his early passion for jazz, traveling and playing with some of the great jazz groups including Buddy Rich and Louis Prima. “Jazz is the only original US art form,“ Larry told me.  “To play classical music the idea is to play a composition as perfectly as possible resulting in constant imitation.  In jazz you’re encouraged to find your own voice, do improvisation, interpretations, variations.”

“Popular music depresses me.  Rock music is like wading in a kiddy pool. Jazz is like swimming in the ocean. Rock musicians play 3 chords for 3000 people and jazz musicians play 3000 chords for 3 people.” 

Larry’s first trip to Mexico was in the early 60’s at the behest of a Mexico City jazz promoter.  He enjoyed Mexico’s jazz scene but returned to the U.S. where jobs were more plentiful.  In New York he met and fell in love with Mexico City-based photographer Nadine Markova.  An antiwar activist, Vietnam had already soured Larry on paying US taxes. Moving to Mexico was an attractive option. He married Nadine.

In the following years Larry continued to perform jazz but also taught music. For a number of years he headed Mexico City's American School music department.  “I’d still be there but the peso devaluation in the mid-80’s led to the withdrawal of half the students and the closure of the music department.” 

Heeding Greenspan’s advice, Larry and Nadine pooled their considerable talents and began supplementing music and photography with journalism. They were a natural team. Larry wrote and Nadine photographed.  They did many travel and archeological pieces for "Geografia Universal".

While working for the BBC on an archeological piece Larry had an experience I listened to in awe and envy. Larry secured rare permission to enter the cave beneath the Pyramid of the Sun. INAH Director Roberto Gallegos suggested they “bring compasses, I think you’ll be interested.” Larry said that when the team reached the cave the compasses “went haywire – we were in a strong magnetic field.  Also of interest was the freshness of the air.  We were eleven in an enclosed space, carrying heavy equipment.  We suffered no oxygen deprivation -- in fact felt energized.”

Asked about other jazz greats who’d come to Mexico, Larry mentioned good friends who lived (and died) in Cuernavaca – the double bassist Charlie Mingus (1922-79) and pianist, arranger, and composer Gil Evans (1912-88).  Saxophonist Dexter Gordon (1923-90) spent several years living near Larry  -- gigging with him in Mexico City and Cuernavaca.  Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) was also a friend with whom Larry jammed at European festivals.  “Dave and his wife Iola spent a number of quiet vacations at nearby Hacienda Cocoyoc,” Larry said.

“For many years Aeromexico and/or Televisa sponsored participation in European jazz festivals.  As the first traveling Mexican jazz group we were a bit of an oddity but much appreciated.  We have a standing invitation to the great jazz festivals however without sponsorship it’s impossible to attend. It’s unfortunate. We’ve developed great local talent.”

Larry added, “I’m very content in Mexico and have no intention of retiring. Though an octogenarian I pay no attention to my chronological age; music is therapy. In fact, I may be a better musician now than I’ve ever been.”

You can hear the Larry Russell International Jazz Quartet most Wednesdays and Thursdays 7-9 p.m. at Kash in San Angel in Mexico City.  They are also regulars at Paparazzi in Cuernavaca.

John Ross' son was dismissive of having live jazz at his father’s homage, preferring a recording of Charlie “Bird” Parker or Charlie Mingus.  Little did he know that Larry Russell had played with these greats and carried on in Mexico the jazz tradition beloved by his father. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


I always encourage members of study trips I lead to speak up and share their knowledge.  I tell them "I don't learn anything when I'm speaking.  I only learn when one of you speaks."  In that way I've learned many things.  Last month Ning Tang from Hunan, China spoke up and set me to thinking about windows -- a marvel of architecture.

It all started when visiting Teotihuacan in the company of a group from the School of Social Work at the University of Alabama which included Ms. Tang, who is working on her masters degree. I was pointing out a characteristic of Teotihuacan's housing complexes -- they have no windows.  In fact, ancient Mesoamerican architecture in general does not make use of windows.  As soon as I said "Windows are a European idea, introduced to Mesoamerica by the Spaniards after the conquest," I realized what an ethnocentric gaffe I had committed.  I wondered if it would slip by without  notice.  But no, Ning immediately spoke up, politely but succinctly stating "Ancient Chinese architecture had windows."

I apologized -- hoping I'd done so profusely -- and quickly rephrased my statement. "Spaniards introduced windows to Mesoamerican architecture."    

The closest thing to a window in ancient Mesoamerican buildings are ventilation holes. They are not even big enough for a person to rest elbows on the windowsill and lean out to see what is going on outside – a favorite activity in the tropics.  In Spanish there is a marvelous word for this activity--“asomarse.” This involves not just looking out the window, but being seen too. In English there is no comparable word. 

Without windows in ancient Mesoamerican buildings sunlight entered only through doorways facing the outdoors or opening onto patios.  Though doorway really isn’t the correct term because Mesoamerican buildings had no doors either.  Entryways were closed by tying curtains across them.  In the rare cases of one room behind another both facing the same source of light, the entryway to the first room was extra wide allowing for more light to enter.

Anyone who’s driven to the Maya ruins in northern Yucatan will remember passing thatch-roofed houses with no windows and no corners. The traditional Mayan house has an oval floor plan with front and back doors lining up on the long 'side' of the house.  One can look right through the house from the front yard to the back yard.  That age-old style of house with its steep-peaked roof was probably the model for the corbelled arched ceilings we see in Maya ruins.

When speaking to Mexicans about windows the subject of taxes invariably arises.  Likewise, when new types of taxes are the topic of discussion,  windows are talked about. It all goes back to Antonio López de Santa Anna (1794-1876), who was president of Mexico eleven times between 1833 and 1855.  Santa Anna, copying several countries in Europe, taxed windows.

The wealthy had more windows than the poor and thus paid more taxes.  Taxes were higher on main avenues than on back streets. Indeed, taxes were higher in Mexico City than in state capitals which in turn had a higher tax rate than in municipal seats.  Though ridiculed, Santa Anna's taxes on windows and doors was a progressive taxation policy.  In Europe and Mexico the very richest families used the tax to show off their wealth; the window tax encouraged ostentation. 

In contemporary society, windows are a harbinger of prestige.  The college dean has a corner office with windows on two walls.  Tenured professors have windows on one of their office walls.  The recently hired professor may have a vent to a stairwell.  It is similar, if more cutthroat, in the corporate world.  

Travelers from the United States frequently comment on the bars on the windows in Mexican homes and buildings. Since most buildings in Mexico are made of brick and concrete there is little concern for fire.  In the United States where many houses are built with flammable materials, windows need to double as emergency exits. A bedroom window must be big enough for a firefighter with a tank on his or her back to crawl in. If windows have bars they can only be decorative and must be able to be easily opened without the need for tools.  I don’t think people in the United States and Mexico often consider that if others are locked out they are locked in.

I enjoy evening drives through villages in low-lying coastal and southeastern Mexico. Residents frequently put rocking chairs out on the sidewalks and sit and chat with their neighbors leaving their windows and doors open.  During those opportunities I always ask our bus driver to slow down and allow us to peer in to the illuminated interiors of the homes. 

I wished I’d ask my new friend if there is a word in Chinese that is similar to "asomarse."   Since they’ve had windows for thousands of years perhaps they have refined techniques for sitting by the window and being seen, conversing with the passing world. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Retired chorus director making Cuernavaca sing

Though not one of my talents, I find myself surrounded by those who not only love music but love to sing and sing well.  For 15 years a Cuernavacan local treasure, relocated Canadian Andrea Carr (“Maestra Andrea”), has made singing available to the entire community – expat and native Cuernavacan alike.

Maestra Andrea formed the choral group called Agrupacion Coral “Deo Gracias” (Deo Gracias Choral Group) after her retirement in 2012 as head of the Music Department at Cuernavaca’s La Salle University. The community choir draws talent from throughout the State of Morelos with ages spanning six decades. The singers represent Mexico and eight other countries of origin. Maestra Andrea comments, “Our chorus strives to blend languages, cultures and voices into one harmonious sound, serving as an example of unity amidst diversity, harmony out of dissonance.”

This month the Agrupacion Coral is performing an ambitious concert titled with the name of one of the pieces they will sing, “Va Pensiero”.  The chorus will present 20 pieces from the 16th through 20th centuries sung in five different languages. They will perform in two churches in northern Cuernavaca, just a 45-minute drive from the toll house on the Mexico City-Cuernavaca expressway.

Va Pensiero, the title of the concert, is from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco. “Choristers have worked tirelessly to master the music we’re performing,” Maestra Andrea said. "I chose the title Va Pensiero because it is a particular highlight of our program, and it is my hope that our music will spark the public's imagination to fly."

“I’ve sung in large church choirs my entire life,” says Charlie's Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins.  “Imagine my surprise and delight when a few members of Cuernavaca's St. Michael’s and All Angels Church came together in 1998 to form a Christmas choir under the direction of Andrea. In only a couple of weeks we sounded like we’d been together for years.  When Christmas passed we demanded a permanent choir. Andrea has directed us ever since.  She’s a phenomenal director, pianist, organist and soprano soloist. What a gift she is to this community.”

Maestra Andrea was a piano prodigy as a child.  Born in Montreal, she spent most of her childhood in Mexico, performing from the age of 10 in major recitals and concerts.   She traveled to England for high school and continued both musical studies and concert performances.  Returning to Canada, Andrea received bachelor and masters degrees from McGill University, studying under piano greats Luba Zuk and Charles Reiner. She then went on to a postgraduate program in Advanced Performance Studies at Concordia University studying with the great piano pedagogue Phil Cohen.

While always pursuing her love of piano, Andrea took voice lessons and sang in choirs wherever she lived.  At the age of 19 she began to accompany those choirs, eventually leading to sectional choir direction.  From 1990-94 she was director of the Montreal West Presbyterian Church choir.

In 1994 Andrea permanently (we hope) returned to Mexico.  At first she did freelance accompanist work and taught private lessons. “Getting resettled in Mexico was frustrating.  No one knew me, knew my training.  It took a long time to establish my credentials as a musician and music educator.”  In 1996 Maestra Andrea began teaching at La Salle. She was later made head of the music department.  Through the ensuing years she taught hundreds of music students.

“I attended Andrea’s first choral concert at La Salle”, Hopkins reminisced. “It was an amazing event considering six months prior there was no chorus. That night two dozen young musicians sang their hearts out in multiple languages. The choral concert was combined with instrument soloists giving student musicians a forum for a true public recital.”

“Throughout her life Andrea has battled Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder of the connective tissue.  Since 2003, Andrea has had 6 surgeries to repair her eyes and to maintain her limited vision; nothing slows her down,” Hopkins continued.

Morelos’ new Secretary of Culture, Cristina Faesler, spoke recently of the need to strengthen the fabric of society through cultural events.  Those words spoke directly to Andrea.  With her recent retirement from La Salle she was looking for meaningful work and decided to take Faesler’s goal to heart. The choir is her way and the way of her choristers to do what they can to strengthen and 'create' community.

I invite you to hear the Agrupacion Coral "Deo Gracias" present their Va Pensiero concert this month.  On June 14th they will perform at 7 p.m. at St. Michael’s And All Angels Parish, Calle Minerva #1, Colonia Delicias, Cuernavaca. On June 20th they will perform at 7 p.m. at Parroquia María Madre de la Misericordia, Calle Río Tamazula #25, Colonia Vista Hermosa, Cuernavaca.  Durring the June 20th concert Maestra Andrea will sing mezzo as part of the vocal trio "Ensamble CantARTE" with piano accompaniment.  I hope to see you there.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

'Modern Impulses' at the Olmedo Museum

We are the beneficiaries of the turnaround in strained relations between Mexico and France. The Dolores Olmedo Museum has loaned its whole collection of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo paintings to the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.  Taking their place is "Impulsos Modernos, Pintura en Mexico 1840-1950" (Modern Impulses, Painting in Mexico 1840-1950) -- an exhibit designed to be loaned to France in 2011 in exchange for impressionist paintings. Plans for both exhibits came to a screeching halt when President Sarkozy cancelled France’s planned “Mexico Year.”  With the recent changes in administration in both countries, cultural exchanges have resumed.

Curator Miguel Cervantes Diaz Lombardo inaugurated the new exhibit last Saturday. He explained that "Impulsos Modernos" spans a little over a century (1840-1950) of Mexican art .  It focuses on 65 pieces of portable easel art by 43 artists.

Curator Cervantes told us “The Revolution brought Mexico a new identity charged with nationalism -- a new conception of what Mexico had been, and was. Jose Vasconcelos, [1920s Secretary of Public Education] was extraordinarily important in developing Mexico's renowned post revolutionary mural art movement dominated by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.  Less appreciated, a modernist easel art movement paralleled the mural art movement."

As if the wonderful "Impulsos Modernos" exhibit weren’t enough, it gives us a fresh reason to return to the remarkable museum housed in Dolores Olmedo’s Xochimilco residence, the gorgeous Hacienda La Noria.  Olmeda’s will left La Noria and its contents to the people of Mexico.

Since opening in 1992, the Olmedo Museum has been home to an impressive collection of Mexican 20th century art -- including 145 pieces by Diego Rivera (1886-1957) and 25 by Frida Kahlo (1907-54).

At age 11, Dolores Olmedo (1908-2002) accompanied her schoolteacher mother to the Secretariat of Public Education (SEP) building, encountering Diego Rivera working on murals there.  Upon introduction, Diego requested permission to paint the young girl, and her mother agreed.  In an undated interview published after her death Olmedo, known to her friends as Lola, acknowledged to Elena Poniatowska a secret she’d kept for decades.  The model for the nude in the mural on the staircase of the SEP building was a very young Lola!

Olmedo had a lifelong friendship with Rivera culminating in him leaving Olmedo head of a trust that contained many of his and Frida’s most valuable works as well as control of Casa Azul, Frida’s birthplace and home.

Lola was an amazingly successful businesswoman.  She transformed the purchase of an old brick factory into a megamillion dollar construction industry. She transformed herself into one of the most powerful and influential people in Mexico.  A product of post-revolutionary Mexico City, she was a friend to several presidents and spent her life at the heart of the 20th century Mexican art renaissance.  Most artists featured in the exhibit were contemporaries of and indeed acquaintances of Doña Lola. 

Mexican artists adapted the European art trends of surrealism, cubism, impressionism, realism, naturalism, modernism, while giving them a Mexican flavor.  "Impulsos Modernos" takes us through these trends in chronological order.

It is an empty exercise to think of many of the post-revolutionary artists without thinking of their political affiliation. The Syndicate of Artists and Engravers formed during the Mexican Revolution stated that to be truly revolutionary, art must include a social statement in addition to being something of beauty -- a statement usually reflecting the member artists' Mexican Communist Party affiliation.  Easel art had much less obvious social statements than murals -- sometimes none at all, or just a subtle inclusion of a red star as Jesus Guerrero Galván (1910-73) did frequently. 

Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) and Gerardo Murillo (1875-1964), better known as Dr. Atl, were notable exceptions.  Tamayo was quoted saying "art only needs to be something of beauty," but in his last years frequently said he had been a socialist all his life. 

Dr. Atl embraced the other end of the political spectrum -- fascism.  Shunned for years by other artists, he has made a strong comeback based solely on the quality of his work -- especially his aerial views of his favorite subject, volcanoes.  In order to work quickly in cramped helicopters or single engine planes, Dr. Atl developed Atl Colors that give his paintings in "Impulsos Modernos" a  sweeping fresh texture quite unlike the other artists work on display around them.

The last room in the exhibit features surrealism and includes paintings by an adopted Mexican, Leonora Carrington. Curator Cervantes chose to end the period with surrealism, stating “surrealism led directly to abstract art.”  The advent of abstract art seems to be the end of the nationalist period of Mexican art. 

I hope word of this exhibit -- open through August 25 -- leads you to the Dolores Olmedo Museum. The Olmedo Museum reflects Lola’s passionate love of Mexico and the arts.  Her impressive pre-Hispanic collection, beautiful gardens and menagerie of living animals create a vibrant museum.  You won’t be disappointed with your visit.