Today marks the anniversary of Scott Joplin’s death, who left us on this date in 1917. Although he himself is dead, his music etc. etc. You know how it goes.
This may be a good time to remind you that Marilyn Nonken‘s fine album of music by Joplin and his collaborators, Syncopated Musings, is now available on CD and on your better music streaming services everywhere. Marilyn will also be celebrating the careers of Joplin and his friends at this year’s Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, to be held in Sedalia, MO, this June. At the festival, she’ll be urging the ragtime form into the future, performing new rags by women composers commissioned especially for performance at the festival. I understand that the theme of this year’s festival is “Women in Ragtime,” so it’s right in keeping with the times.
To brighten up your Friday morning, I offer Marilyn’s performance of “Sensation,” an ebullient Charles Lamb rag “arranged by” Joplin. Marilyn and I will be raising a glass to Scott and his pals at Cafe Katja later today. Cheers!
About twenty years ago, at the dawn of the blogosphere, I started my own blog to write about theater, drama, and playwriting efforts. At the time, the only critic with a blog presence was Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal, and with the misplaced confidence of youth, I dropped him a short note alerting him to my own web site and suggested that he might find it of interest. Terry did more than that; he responded enthusiastically, both at About Last Night and in personal emails, and so began a friendly relationship. Terry and I did not see eye-to-eye on many aesthetic issues, but his generosity and open-mindedness made our disagreements more on the order of cheerful exchanges of views instead of bitter arguments. And on several occasions it turned out we did surprisingly agree on certain plays, music, and social issues, and this deepened my respect for his perspective.
Terry and I would get together for lunch once in a while, and a few times I was his +1 for press previews; I would also run into him occasionally when I myself was a freelance theater reviewer for the New York Times. (Once I came across him during a press preview for a particularly uninspired Broadway musical comedy. When I approached him to say hello, he looked up at me from his aisle seat, widened his eyes, and said with a smile, “Boy, did somebody put you on the wrong list.”) And when, in 2006, he kindly agreed to accept a press ticket for my own play, he not only attended but gave it a rave review on his web site, a review that brought considerable cheer and happiness to the director and cast of the play, not to mention myself. And, because I was familiar with Terry’s journalistic integrity, which nobody who knew him would deny, it was doubly appreciated; had he not liked the play, a tiny-Greenwich-Village-theater bagatelle rather than a Broadway extravaganza, he would have responded to it with a kind, but silent, smile.
Since then Terry and I remained in only occasional contact, but it was with great sadness that I read of his passing at the age of 65 this morning. In the years since, Terry had written highly-regarded biographies of two of the jazz musicians most important to him, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. He began a side career of writing and directing plays himself. And Terry was particularly admired and beloved for his unstinting devotion to regional theater productions, travelling far and wide (at least, before corona set in) to cover out-of-the-way plays and musicals that otherwise would not have received national attention; indeed, Terry was the only national theater critic to spend any time searching out theater on the highways and byways of this huge country of ours, and for this alone I’m sure he’s at Heaven’s check-in desk.
Terry had his share of sadness over the past few years, becoming a widower two years ago, but had recently found love again, a love he was unashamed of expressing on Twitter, his preferred social medium, where he posted with sometimes alarming frequency. I’ll miss seeing his name and his posts there, so a toast to you today, old friend. We hardly knew ye.
Journalism has been taking a body blow lately, what with accusations of “fake news” and bias, but this ignores the terrific and courageous role that journalism played in much of the twentieth century and continues to play today. From Gareth Jones‘ reportage on the Ukrainian Holodomor in the 1930s to Vasily Grossman’s “The Hell of Treblinka” in 1944 and John Hersey’s Hiroshima in 1946, great journalists have been dedicated to pursuing and reporting events that governments would prefer unpursued and unreported. They do this, often, at great personal risk, and even when the physical risk is minimal, the vast majority of journalists are biased to just one thing: facts, and facts that are verifiable, not those that might be characterized as “alternative.”
I’ve been involved in various kinds of journalism since I edited my college newspaper back in the day; since then, much of this has been arts journalism, and lately here at the blog what I generously call “journalism” has been of the more personal variety. Nonetheless, I’m delighted and honored to end this week as a new, full member of Philadelphia’s Pen & Pencil Club, the oldest private club for journalists in the United States, founded in 1892. It’s going to be a rough couple years up until the 2024 election, and as a free press is the handmaiden of democracy, I raise my glass today to journalism and journalists. And though I’ll be at Cafe Katja this afternoon, I hope to raise a glass or three at the Pen & Pencil Club soon.
I was originally going to raise a glass to myself for actually writing and publishing a substantive post this week, but instead my Friday toast at Cafe Katja will be to the memory of Norm Macdonald, who departed these earthly shores all too soon a few days ago. He’d been a great favorite of mine for years (even on The Norm Show, his 1999 sitcom). Rather than burden the internet with yet another heartfelt memorial, I thought I’d post one of his best talk-show appearances — and there were many — in the below clip from a 1997 Late Night with Conan O’Brien, when Macdonald hijacked an interview with Melrose Place star Courtney Thorne-Smith to offer a savage takedown of the prop comic Carrot Top in just a few well-chosen words.
So here’s to Norm. See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon.
This week I noted the recent release of a few books by and about R. Crumb and the upcoming release of a new recording of Scott Joplin rags, performed by my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken.
Like everyone else, I’ve been easing back into things, including this blog, after an extended period of admittedly intermittent activity. Along with the recent Plague-Year-and-a-Half (apologies to Daniel Defoe), we’ve been in medias res between living spaces as our recently purchased new apartment has been undergoing renovation. Private time has been tricky for all of us, and though Virginia Woolf insisted that a room of one’s own was a necessity, it’s not always a possibility. Still, a light has appeared at the end of the tunnel, and I hope that we can open up at full capacity soon, masks not required.
Fortunately my usual Friday watering hole is now permitting bar seating. I’ve come to believe that the first mark of a civilized society is the ability to walk into a bar, pull up a stool, and sip quietly at an adult beverage as one considers with a bartender and a friend (or in solitude, if that prospect pleases) the events of the day and the mysteries of life on this earth. Without this liberty, all is chaos. See you at Cafe Katja later today.