James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Music

  • Because We Haven't Heard About My Favorite Coventry-Based Band in a While ...

    I could have written this item decades ago if my last name were Smith.

    I give you, yes, The Fallows, a rising indie-acoustic band from the English Midlands who for understandable reasons have commanded attention in our household since their debut in 2012.

    Tragically none of the band members has the actual last name I am looking for. Their real last names turn out to be Darby, Rutherford, Stokes, Pointon, and Corkerry. May these some day be numbered with Lennon-McCartney or at least the revered Clapton-Bruce-Baker! On the other hand, their base is very near the ancestral homeland of the few Fallowses in the world, so we will overlook such technicalities (plus plural-spelling fine points) and proudly claim them. Here is a sample of their music:

    With more here. And hey, guys, when your tours take you to the New World, let us know. 

    I think henceforth I will introduce myself as "footstompin indie/folk." It's in the blood.

  • 'Music for People Who Have Given Up'

    'That's not an opinion, it's a fact.'

    Striving always to encourage full and frank discussion, and following the proud Atlantic motto "of no party or clique," I give you this (fairly representative) response to my recent mention of Nataly Dawn and Pomplamoose.

    To: James Fallows
    From: xxx xxxx
    Subject: hate Pomplamoose. they're terrible. and that's not an opinion, it's a fact

    that version of "September" is cowardly and pitiful.  at first it sounds like they're really gonna do something with the song -- they change the harmony a bit.  but then they chicken out, leave the chords unchanged, and just end up making you wish you were listening to EWF.

    her singing is anemic, and there's no drive or urgency to anything they do.  it's like sweatpants in Seinfeld -- it's music for people who have given up.  you haven't given up, have you?  no, you haven't!... so try this instead:



    OK, I actually like Van Hunt, and I'm interested in the way the beginning of this number reminds me of Pup Tent by Luna in the 90s -- which itself is better than I remembered; but I see only peril and heartache ahead if I dig myself in any deeper on this topic. So here endeth the music blogging for the year. (Except to mention that I felt general and unaccustomed boomer-era pride in hearing the way that Fleetwood Mac's Tusk was used in the pilot of The Americans a week ago. Ok, here endeth for real.)

  • On the Pomplamoose Beat: Nataly Dawn Goes Solo

    You've been waiting for this news...

    It's been a while since we've caught up with news in this category. In case you missed it, Nataly Dawn has a new single album coming out:


    NatalyDawn.png

    More info here. That is all. 

    __

    Actually, here's a little more. For anyone tempted to go back on the anti-Dawn/Pomplamoose mockerywarpath, I realize that I'm not going to change your minds. But at least take a minute for re-exposure to parts of their oeuvre. For instance one of their own compositions:



    And an Earth, Wind & Fire cover:


    That really is all. Thanks to reader KS.
  • Gangnam Style's Broadway Roots

    What America's most esteemed choreographer and Korea's biggest celebrity have in common.

    You probably know this already. But before seeing the boffo Juneau, Alaska, production of Oklahoma! I hadn't really focused on it, so I figured it was worth sharing the point.

    Where did PSY's horse-riding dance in Gangnam Style come from? It certainly seems as if it might have come from Agnes De Mille's choreography for the dream-ballet sequence of Oklahoma! as shown below. Skip to time 8:25.



    If you would like to hear Agnes De Mille discuss the thinking behind this sequence, go here. And if you would like to see a far more explicit matching of PSY and Agnes De Mille, try this. It's the dances from another possible De Mille source of Gangnam Style, Aaron Copland's Rodeo - but set to PSY's music.



    "Straight," non K-Pop version of Rodeo is here. Submitted in the interest of cultural understanding.

  • All Jobim, All the Time

    The surprising connections between a musical genius of the 1960s and a struggling politician of the 2010s.

    This is what the Internet is for. In response to an item about Andy Williams, and a followup that included a video of the great song Aguas de Março as performed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina, messages like this one arrive. It's from a reader in Japan.

    If you love that song, then you should definitely watch this version:


    The same song, done by the same two, in almost the same manner.

    But what makes this truly special is that it appears to be the actual recording session and the exact take that later went on the record and became one of the most beloved bossa nova songs of all time. I can't absolutely confirm that (for one thing, all of the comments are in Portuguese), but I've heard that album a hundred times and, yes, this is that exact version.

    Bless whoever had the foresight to set up the camera.

    He's right. I find this version incredibly moving, both for its role in recording history and for the magic between the two performers. Including the last few seconds of the clip.

    A number of readers also recommended this video of Elis Regina with a jazz combo. And thanks to TH for this link to the intricate lyrics to Aguas de Março, in Portuguese and English.

    To wrap this all up, a note from someone who doesn't have a gripe!

    Can I just say that there's at least one reader who got what you meant when you offered that clip of Andy Williams and Jobim as a shorthand summary that might illuminate why Mitt Romney's pre-rock personal style seems out of place in our decidedly post-rock culture?  And, can I ask my fellow readers to get over themselves a little?  Did anyone really think that the point of what you were saying was that Romney could, in any way, be equated with the substance of Jobim's music?  Come on! 

    The point, as I see it, is that before Rock, with its aesthetic of outsiderism and its claims to sweaty authenticity, took over the center of the popular music universe*, that center was occupied by music that hewed to entirely different criteria.  These were criteria that, rhetorically, placed greater value on execution than emotion, that at its best preferred cleverness and craft to intellectualism or transcendence. I'm not saying that Jobim's music  fits neatly into this paradigm at all, but that this popular aesthetic made a space on the charts for Jobim's music in a way that a Rock-dominated pop aesthetic wouldn't.  And, Jobim, who was a great, great composer, whose tremendously sophisticated music implies transcendent emotion through its very refusal to pander to the listener by acting that emotion out, was happy enough to pursue that place on the charts by dueting with a pure pop singer like Williams.

    The interesting thing about this to me is how someone could, as Romney does, seem so untouched by the cultural shifts that we associate with "the sixties" and the Rock aesthetic.  I suspect it has something to do with money, and something to do with his church, and something to do with his personality.  But, either way, what better way to make the point than by offering a glimpse at music from Romney's coming of age period that was literally untouched by the 60s Rock aesthetic because that aesthetic was still plugging it out on the chitlin circuit.

    Maybe you could have made this clearer by choosing a video of Williams without someone like Jobim, but that would have seemed to be just taking a cheap shot at Williams on the occasion of his death.  I like this much better, because it illuminates both Mitt Romney and Andy Williams. 

    I know a lot about this stuff, but I didn't know about this performance of this song.  The notion that we can't learn anything by putting Mitt Romney next to Jobim and thinking about the moment in time that they both evoke is foolish.  Yes, Jobim's music is timeless and transcendent, a high human achievement.   But it is also tied mnemonically to a specific cultural and historical time, and is sturdy and substantial enough that using it to evoke that moment does it no harm whatsoever.  Those folks rushing to "defend" Jobim here are actually the ones that are seriously underestimating the power of his compositions.
    ___
    *People think this happened with Elvis in the 50s, but those gains weren't really consolidated until the mid-1960s, which is why I use "Rock" instead of "Rock and Roll" throughout this.  I actually wrote a dissertation that argues that, after about 1966, the center of the popular music universe is dominated by what I call unpopular popular music: music that is distinguished in the pop marketplace by its supposed transcendence of the marketplace.  The paradox that the most commercially successful music over the past 4 or 5 decades has also often been the music that posits its own authentic uncommerciality is fascinating to me.  As is the fact that Romney seems like a visitor from a place where this never happened.
  • Readers on the Warpath about 'Tom' Jobim

    Which of today's politicians does the great Brazilian composer really bring to mind?

    On the occasion of the singer Andy Williams's death, I posted a clip of Williams and said that his mid-1960s style and look -- pre-Hendrix, pre-Sgt. Pepper, pre-Pet Sounds -- helped me understand Mitt Romney. More and more Romney comes across to me as a man whose taste and demeanor are from an earlier age, and who doesn't quite know how to convey them to the current audience.

    That Williams clip was of a duet with the great Antonio Carlos Jobim. Many readers write in to protest the idea that the Jobim and Romney aesthetics can be linked in even this indirect way. For instance, from a reader in Japan:

    I'm taking the liberty of writing you now to comment on your "Andy Williams/Antonio Carlos Jobim" post. I gather it was put up partly in the nature of a tribute to the recently deceased Andy Williams, and I shouldn't nitpick at it--but--as you probably know anyway, you do Jobim a huge disservice by filing him under the inspiration for Mitt Romney's sense of style!

    Jobim is up there in the list of greatest composers and performers of the 20th century ("Aguas de Marco," "Se todos fossem iguais a voce" etc. etc.). Andy Williams, nice voice and all, doesn't hold a candle to him. (He was also gorgeous in his younger days, judging by the photographs taken in Brazil, without the extra dose of Brylcreem the Andy Williams Show seems to have applied to him.) Do your readers a favor and post some of the YouTube videos from "Tom Vinicius Toquinho e Miucha," for a treat.

    I apologize for jumping down your throat, but I wrote my senior thesis, back when, on Tom Jobim and the singer Elis Regina, and they have a space very close to my heart.

    OK, how about this one with Elis Regina, below. Watch it through and tell me that this interaction is not as romantic as anything you have seen -- even if, like me, you don't understand a word they are saying.



    My wife will testify that I love Jobim music in general and could listen to the deceptively simple melodies of Aguas de Março or even Samba De Uma Nota Só for a very long time. Not to mention Onda, Insensatez, Saudade, Agua de Beber, Dindi, etc. So there.

    And:

    In your comment concerning the death of Andy Williams, you showed what was considered to be cool in the pre rock and roll 60's ("Mad Men") era using a clip of Williams singing "Girl from Ipanema" (one of the preeminent Bossa Nova songs) with its composer, Antonio Carlos Jobim.  You then equated Mitt Romney's style (and overall manner) to this era and, by extension, to Bossa Nova.  While I understand (and agree) with the linkage of Romney to the early 60's era, I strongly disagree with linking him to Bossa Nova. 

    Having grown up through the 60's and 70's, and having listened to (and liked) much of the rock from that time period, I still think that Bossa Nova (which my Mom introduced me to) is the coolest music there is, with Jobim being the coolest composer.  To me, it's a type of music that transcends the era it was created in.  And, for me, Romney is someone who definitely can't seem to transcend anything, including the early 60's era whose style he seems most in tune with.

    If fact, when I think the about the cool, refined, restrained sounds of Bossa Nova, the politician that pops into my head is not Mitt Romney but Barack Obama.  Go figure.

    And:

    My wife and I are currently at Bourg Le Compte, France on our barge and have limited internet coverage, so I was unable to view the Andy Williams clip. Growing up in that era (I'm 63), I can imagine the blandness (viewed from our time) of the music and the presentation.  However, there was something going on with Brazilian music in the U.S. during this period that I think had an influence on a lot of popular music and culture to this day. 

    Tom Jobim (and Sergio Mendez and others) made "foreign" music accessible and and acceptable.  Who could have predicted from this clip that sitar music would through the Beatles become popular not so many years later.  Tastes need to be cultivated and the Jobim's (and to their credit the Sinatra's the William's and others) opened American ears to other types of music.  Williams was popularizing the music and certainly not radical, but the opening of world music to the U.S. market certainly came from this period.  And the breadth of current American musical tastes is better for these early commercial efforts.

    That is all. But please do watch that clip above.

  • June 23: Embarrassment of Riches in D.C.

    A book talk, a music show -- you have no excuse to be cranky or bored

    Gladstone.jpgIf you're looking for entertainment next Thursday night, June 23, in Washington, please come to the famous Politics and Prose book store (which is under new ownership as of today) to hear Brooke Gladstone, of NPR's On The Media, talk about her very interesting new book The Influencing Machine. I'll be interviewing her, starting at 7pm.


    ZLAEM_Pomplamoose_138.jpgAnd if you have the ability to be in two places at once, consider also going to the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center to hear OK Go and (yes) Pomplamoose. They're on at 6pm.

    I am looking into telekinesis options for myself that evening. Enjoy one or the other or both.

    UPDATE: Short of telekinesis, there is always the choice of watching the show later, via the Kennedy Center's web site where Millennium Stage performances are archived. Thanks to reader DB for this tip.

  • Gil Scott-Heron

    A singer whose voice, poetry, and music marked an age

    The music I most associate with my first stage of living in Washington, in the Watergate era of the 1970s when I was working for the Washington Monthly, was the voice and poetry of Gil Scott-Heron, who was then in his early-/mid-20s. When I think of sitting and sweating in the non-airconditioned Washington Monthly office late on stifling DC nights, I think as well of Gil Scott-Heron's immediately recognizable voice in the background, on the radio. To me it was the theme music of that time. Of course this was a voice you stopped and listened to, rather than half-noticing as background effect.

    He really was a beautiful singer, in addition to his poetry -- and his political influence, which has been most discussed on the occasion of his death. The only drawback of his being so well known for 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised' is that his singing doesn't sound so great on that song. I preferred ones like this, which certainly is political in its own way:



    Ta-Nehisi Coates posted an appreciation of GSH this morning. I am surprised at how moved I am to hear of his death. Sympathies to his family, and gratitude for his life and work.

  • The Really Most Interesting Man in the World

    'Wish I lived in the Golden Age'

    I am no fan of Heineken beer, as beer. But Heineken as a cultural force is something else again. I take my hat off to any company responsible for an ad like the one below, "The Entrance." Yes, you've seen it already, but why not enjoy it once more -- and stay around for a little bit of video compare-and-contrast. Here's the short version that usually runs on TV, and which I'm reminded of by having seen it during Friday's Lake People-Calves NBA playoff game:



    The comparison with the three-minute long internet version, below, is fascinating for what it shows about the editing and artistry that went into the short final release. The long version provides a lot more airtime for the bubbly blonde singer, Mette Lindberg of the Danish group Asteroids Galaxy Tour, which is fine, especially in the snappy opening. [See, it's not all Pomplamoose around here.] And it fleshes out a few of the "plot" elements in the ad. But after you see it, you realize that everything that matters was captured, better, in the version that's only one-fourth as long, with nothing extraneous left in. It's like a poem version of an essay. Don Draper would have been proud, and perhaps would have wanted to play the leading role.

    For the record, Mr. Cool in this ad is a French actor, Eric Monjoin. And while I would generally take a Dos XX over a Heineken, I think the Most Interesting Man in the World crown has passed from Mexico's control back to Western Europe.

  • Dylan, Dowd, Bjork, and Beijing: More on Foreign Artists in China

    What's the best way for artists to have an impact?

    Earlier today I mentioned that the on-scene reaction to Bob Dylan's recent concerts in China was quite different from the tut-tutting and "outrage" that many Americans were expressing  over Dylan's alleged sell-out to his Chinese paymasters.

    Two further reactions from Westerners with long experience in China. First, from Luddy Harrison, who himself works as a musician in Beijing and whose musical partner is the Chinese singer/songwriter Pan Luoyi, 潘络绎. He contrasts Dylan's tour (and the recent Eagles concert I mentioned) to Bjork's Chinese concert tour a few years ago:

    >>There's another aspect to this whole question, namely, what is in fact the most effective thing for a foreign performer to do, if they hope to increase openness and democracy in China? I was at Bjork's concert when she muttered 'Tibet' a few times in the encore. It was off-mic and hardly seemed courageous to me, in fact I couldn't make it out and didn't understand what had happened until I read the papers the next day.

    But this much I am sure of because I experienced it on the ground: the reaction was for the government to shut down visiting Western performers almost altogether, and to notch up the pressure on foreigners in the Chinese music business (i.e., expat musicians). About a year later Ticketmaster left China. If it's fair to evaluate an action by its results, then any fair assessment of what Bjork did would have to conclude that it didn't work, to say the least. It backfired. (Reuters photo from the tour below.)

    BjorkInChina.jpg

    It has been the steady stream of relatively quiet concerts by artists who come to China, touch their audiences and then leave that, over time, have made the Chinese music audience aware that there is an enormous difference between the sanitized fluff they are served up locally and the music that comes from abroad. The Eagles with their dated pop tunes probably did more to nudge the door open than Bjork with her "courageous gesture".

    A final point: it ought not to be the case that every artist in the world should have to turn from the proper subject matter of their art, whatever it is that inspires them to create, to politics or revolution or agitation for democracy instead. This is unfair to art and to artists. Some like [the recently detained] Ai Weiwei may naturally feel that democracy in China is the subject matter of their art and the purpose of their life. Others naturally don't (thank goodness). I don't much like the idea of setting up the idea that every performer who comes to China should challenge the government overtly from the stage! It's not only a counterproductive thing to do, it's not very good art or music either.<<

    Below and after the jump from Glenn Mott of Hearst, who recently spent a year in Beijing as a Fulbright scholar and now is in Hong Kong:

    >>I flew up from Hong Kong for the concert. A young woman sitting next to me at Worker's Gymnasium held a short stack of paper on her lap. She was busy reading through and annotating these when I found my seat. She said she was a 22 year old student from Jilin Province studying in Beijing. Slender and stylish with Northern features and hair like Joey Ramone, she'd come alone, paying 480 quai [about $75] for her ticket. She asked me if I thought Dylan was going to play any "vintage" songs.

    More »

  • Dylan, Dowd, and China: Did Bob Really Sell Out?

    Americans in America scold Bob Dylan for playing it safe in China. Chinese and Westerners in China say, not so fast.

    Maureen Dowd, writing from Washington DC, is wroth about Bob Dylan's failure to stand up to The Man in his concert in Beijing this week. "Bob Dylan may have done the impossible: broken creative new ground in selling out," and so on. I see from the world of Twitter that this outraged/ disappointed interpretation is sweeping through the U.S. commentariat.

    Bob-Dylan-performs-in-Jun-001.jpgMany of my Chinese and Western friends, writing from Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Nanjing, are wroth about Dowd and what they call her misunderstanding of Dylan, China, and the current alarming wave of crackdowns there. (Getty photo, left, from last year's tour.) Eg:

    - Jeremiah Jenne, a Chinese-speaker and long-time resident of Beijing who covered the actual "Jasmine Protests" in Beijing in a stint as Guest Blogger here, says in his Jottings from the Granite Studio that "there has been a rash of increasingly unrealistic drivel [about Dylan] from the foreign press, culminating yesterday in a truly moronic piece by Maureen Dowd." Jenne pointed out that one of the numbers Dylan sang in Beijing, "a corrosive version of All Along the Watchtower, ain't exactly bubble gum pop. Coming on the heels of an epic Ballad of a Thin Man (in which Bob stood in a yellow spotlight at center stage, staring down the crowd like a carnival barker at the gates of Hell, literally snarling lyrics like "But something is happening here/But you don't know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones?") it's hard to complain that Bob was toning it down."

    - Adam Minter, also former Guest Blogger here and long-term resident of Shanghai, points out  at his Shanghai Scrap site that Dylan began his China shows with the strongly Christian Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, eg:

    Jesus said, "Be ready
    For you know not the hour in which I come"
    Jesus said, "Be ready
    For you know not the hour in which I come"
    He said, "He who is not for Me is against Me"
    Just so you know where He's coming from

    Minter says:

    >>those few Chinese who attended, much less cared about, Dylan's concert, have not - best as I can tell - joined the chorus of mostly affluent foreigners claiming that a failure to sing "The Times They Are A-Changin'" in Beijing is tantamount to performing for Qadaffi's family. My suspicion is that they (and Dylan), probably sense that, in Beijing, there just isn't much revolutionary currency in song verses such as:

    Come senators, congressmen
    Please heed the call
    Don't stand in the doorway
    Don't block up the hall
    For he that gets hurt
    Will be he who has stalled
    There's a battle outside and it is ragin'
    It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
    For the times they are a-changin'

    Indeed, I think it's fair to say that revolutionary anthems which address "senators and congressmen" are best addressed to people who have them....

    Which brings me back to the striking apocalyptic Christian imagery and message with which Dylan started his Beijing and Shanghai shows. I don't know why he chose to do that number (aside from the fact that it's great), and what it says about him. But the fact that Maureen Dowd and other critics of the performance fail to pick up on the fact that Dylan sang an overtly Christian song to (using Dowd's words) "2,000 Chinese apparatchiks in the audience taking a relaxing break from repression" seems to me a much more pointed criticism of Dowd's (and her likeminded critics) biases and blind-spots than anything that's been written about the bard's workmanlike Chinese performances.<<

    And this note from a long time Dylan fan in America:

    >>Check out the Beijing set list - he played A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall and Ballad of a Thin Man - those tunes are as "subversive" as anything he has written, and frankly, better tunes than his "protest" songs (The Times They Are A Changing).  http://www.boblinks.com/040611s.html 

    What does Maureen Dowd want from Dylan exactly, and what evidence does she have that he altered his set list?  He doesn't speak at concerts, the set list changes daily, and again, Gonna Change My Way of Thinking which opened both China shows, and Desolation Row from Shanghai are more thumb-in-your eye than Blowin in the Windhttp://www.boblinks.com/040811s.html 

    Dylan closed both China shows with Like A Rolling Stone (as he does all his shows). If the Chinese were really intent on shutting Dylan down, wouldn't they have crossed out that tune from the set list?

    Gonna Change My Way of Thinking, from Slow Train Coming, opens with this lyric:

    Gonna change my way of thinking
    Make myself a different set of rules
    Gonna change my way of thinking
    Make myself a different set of rules
    Gonna put my good foot forward
    And stop being influenced by fools

    So much oppression
    Can't keep track of it no more
    So much oppression
    Can't keep track of it no more


    It's from Dylan's so called "born again" phase, but do you think the Chinese were hip to that lyric?  Something is happening here, and you don't know what it is, do you Maureen Dowd?<<

    For another on-scene review of the Shanghai concert, see this. I have heard to similar effect from a few Chinese friends in brief messages too. Main points of this based-in-China pushback:
        - The Chinese following for Dylan is not that enormous anyway -- in contrast, say, to the Eagles, whom my wife and I saw perform before a packed, enraptured crowd in Beijing last month and who are truly Big in China;
        - The songs that U.S. critics of Dylan were yearning to hear weren't ones that would have resonated in China; and
        - The songs he did sing were plenty boat-rocking themselves. "So much oppression / can't keep track of it no more."

    Based on what I know about China and the role of pop culture there, and what I saw of the crackdown until a week ago when I left Beijing, Jenne, Minter, et al ring true to me. At a minimum, the situation is not as clear cut as "Dylan sells out." But read it all and judge for yourself.

  • I Can't Not Mention This ('Lang Lang as Warmonger' B.S. Dept)

    Lang Lang speaks!

    For those American right-wingers, and those Chinese hotheaded fenqing, who were sure, sure, sure that the famous Chinese-born pianist Lang Lang was sticking a harpoon in the side of dunce-like Americans with the song he played at the White House State Dinner, please, please, please listen to his interview this evening with Melissa Block of NPR. (Transcript here.) You are wrong, wrong, wrong:



    Sample convincing/exasperated detail, about the Korean War movie that introduced the song: "This movie was like.. when my mother was two years old." His "I am a man of both countries" theme was exactly the tone Lang Lang had when my wife and I were fortunate enough to talk with him at the dinner before he performed, as described here. Now I'm really going away and leaving things to the guests. But had to say it.

  • One More Under the Wire, on the White House Jazz Show

    Finding yet more meanings in the State Dinner jazz performance

    Following this and this item, a Western reader in northern China writes:

    >>It seems to me that the intended subtext of the jazz presentation at the White House was much deeper than simply "America ... still had some zip". Indeed the immediate thought that came to mind when I heard about the musical line-up was that jazz has become all that it is by relying on the US traits of individual liberty and spontaneous collaboration. And I think this is very well highlighted in Mr. Bouloukos experience: "... I was often asked by serious Chinese classical musicians how I could improvise at great length on the piano without having any music in front of me. When I responded that I was playing jazz..."

    Moreover, it has occurred to me in reviewing your two columns that the well-recognized prominence of an excluded minority of Americans in inventing and furthering jazz has a similar significance internationally. And if one is looking for another intended subtext in the Obama White House, this would have to be suspected.<<

    Thumbnail image for StateDinner2A.png

    On the last point, yes, indeed. The performers included the two featured African-American singers, plus Herbie Hancock and a bassist and (I think) sax player who were black; a number of white musicians, on trumpet (x2), drums, piano; and then Shenyang-born, Philadelphia-trained, proudly-Chinese, but currently NYC-based Lang Lang. If you were looking for an e pluribus unum tableau, you could do worse. 
  • State Dinner Jazz Concert: The Long Road from Kenny G

    Another area of Chinese ascent: jazz!

    Just under the wire, this note from Nicholas Charles Bouloukos, a jazz pianist and conductor now working in China, is too interesting not to share while the Hu Jintao visit is still more or less newsworthy. Bouloukos explains how the White House choice of a jazz-centric music program for last week's State Dinner matches developments in China itself:

    >>Thank you for reporting on the important subtext behind the musical programming at the State Dinner. In the West we first see the foreground, but in Asia it is usually the background and larger picture that is often first recognized.... [Chinese leadership] will surely understand the message of the musical programming at the State Dinner, while Western media will not only miss the point but spend five thousand times the effort discussing Michelle's dress.

    But you might not be aware of another level of reasoning behind the choice of performers. Shanghai of course has a long jazz history, and in the past ten years we have seen a jazz renaissance in Shanghai and greater China that mirrors the country's financial ascendancy. 

    Kenny-G.jpgI first came to Asia in 1996, and at that time jazz equaled Kenny G for the greater part of humanity in this part of the world. In 2000, on my first gig in mainland China, I was often asked by serious Chinese classical musicians how I could improvise at great length on the piano without having any music in front of me. When I responded that I was playing jazz, the responses more or less were variations of this one theme: "But jazz is saxophone music!" [Kenny G photo -- helpfully supplied by me, not Bouloukos -- is from here.]

    In 2002 I came to Shanghai to play at the House of Blues and Jazz, which is still one of the best jazz clubs anywhere in the world. At that time the local musicians could play some funk tunes ("Cantaloupe Island," "Watermelon Man," and "Chameleon," all by Herbie Hancock) and perhaps a vaguely Ellingtonesque version of "Caravan." My bass player at that time was Ren Yu Qing, formerly the bassist of China's only rock god, Cui Jian, and at that time a new convert to the music of jazz. [JF note: Watermelon Man, with Hancock on the piano, was in fact the opening number at the State Dinner concert.]   

    Fast forward to 2011. Ren Yu Qing's JZ Group, which includes the JZ Club and JZ School, have for five years produced increasingly hip jazz festivals of international caliber. Last year's headliner was Diane Reeves (with Mr. Martin on piano). Dee Dee Bridgewater headlined the 2009 JZ Music Festival, and I was privileged to conduct and play piano for the performance with our JZ Big Band [YouTube here and here -- with Bridgewater plus Bouloukos on the piano.] Dee Dee and Herbie both performed at the Shanghai EXPO last summer as well, in concert with the students of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. These two dynamic ladies and others of heir caliber are not just great performers, they are true ambassadors of a great American art form; and as ambassadors they have largely been welcomed warmly and enthusiastically by not only the Chinese cultural authorities but by the general public as well.

    More »

  • A Final State Dinner Note

    America's classic music conveys a thematic message

    As a last entry in this space before turning things over to the guest team, and while the Hu-Obama State Dinner has not entirely faded from the news cycle, here is an atmospheric note, which I haven't seen much about elsewhere. It involves this scene:

    StateDinner2A.png

    One of the implied background themes of this state visit, from the U.S. side, was calmly reasserting that the U.S. has not, in fact, fallen completely apart or gone away. A year ago, during President Obama's visit to China, there was much hyperbolic moaning about America's desperate position as supplicant to its new Chinese paymasters. Since then, in various ways I won't belabor now, the U.S. has asserted some of its ability to recover (except of course in job-creation), its long-term commitment to Asia and the Pacific, and its diplomatic and institutional resilience. In this same year, the Chinese leadership has in many ways overstepped in military, economic, and diplomatic terms. Indications are that the Chinese leadership recognizes that it has overstepped, and realizes that these moves have made nearly all its neighbors warier of it, and closer to the US, then they have been in years. This doesn't mean the U.S. should launch some new bragging contest or doesn't have some serious problems. Rather it helps restore a situation better for all sides: a recognition that these are two powerful countries that will have ups and downs but will both be around for the long haul.

    The other, complementary message - which ran through every statement by the President and his officials (and was even part of Henry Kissinger's essay just before the meeting) -- is that the United States is not trying to bottle up, contain, or thwart China. As Obama said again and again, China's getting richer doesn't make us poorer -- or shouldn't. It should make everyone better off. Because of sheer triteness, I don't like the term "win-win," but in whatever wording that was the message coming from every U.S. official. The logic here is that China will be the best version of itself if it doesn't feel hamstrung, constrained, disrespected, or resented, and recognizes that America's disagreements on human rights, or trade policies, are not attempts to block China's progress.

    Now, suppose you thought those were two big US themes -- and then you considered the musical entertainment after the dinner. Here is what you might have noticed:

    The program was nearly all jazz, by American performers of the first rank doing classic American numbers. To me the showstopper was the phenomenal singer Dianne Reeves --long famous in the jazz world and known more generally from her role as the 1950s singer in Good Night and Good Luck -- performing with pianist Peter Martin. And of course Herbie Hancock and DeeDee Bridgewater and Chris Botti and more. It was very good, very up-paced, very loud, and very lively jazz, performed with Hu Jintao and the rest of the Chinese delegation ten feet away in the front row. Obviously music does not prove national economic vitality. (Cf Buena Vista Social Club.) But if you wanted, well, theme music for an America that still had some zip, this would be an artful choice.

    And for the "win-win" concept? There was this improbable bit of showmanship: Herbie Hancock and the young Chinese-born, US-trained pianist-phenom Lang Lang, doing a four-hands rendition of a piece by Ravel with a Chinoiserie theme. They enjoyed each other, and embraced when it was done. Again, it doesn't prove anything, but it was a good choice. Lang Lang on his own then played a Chinese song.

    My wife and I were seated two rows behind Bill Clinton during the music, and -- what a surprise! -- you could see him moving, bopping, smiling the whole time. When the event was all over, at the moment pictured above, Obama made the normal statesmanlike remarks -- and then had a nice ad libbed comment, that he thought he had detected Hu Jintao tapping his foot during some of the numbers. If you have seen the normal immobile public mien of Chinese leaders you get the joke. Hu gave the standard "heartfelt greetings!" response, but I mainly thought: it's a performance that made you proud and happy to be an American and had to have had some infectious effect. (Like the great Chinese-folk-blues performance I described here.)

    The photo: OK, it's blurry, but it was with a camera phone in the dark at short notice. If you click, it's bigger but still blurry. Facing the camera, from left to right, you can more or less make out: Lang Lang, Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, trumpeter Randy Brecker (standing back by the portrait), Herbie Hancock, Dianne Reeves, DeeDee Bridgewater, bassist James Genus, Chris Botti holding trumpet, and Michelle Obama. That's the white-maned back of Bill Clinton's head you see in the front row on the right, and the back of Robert Gates's head in the very corner. While I'm at it, that's the back of John Kerry's head at the lower left -- and the baldish head in the center belongs to former SecState George Shultz. If you could see right through his head, you would detect Jimmy Carter, whose wife Rosalynn's head is visible immediately to Shultz's right. Joe and Jill Biden are standing directly in front of Obama. While I'm also at it, how incredibly small-minded was it of Harry Reid and John Boehner to decline invitations to this event?

    Now you know, and I'll see you in a while.


    UPDATE: Thanks to reader JE, I see that Lang Lang has posted the video of his duet with Herbie Hancock here:

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