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When I was a kid I had the obligatory crazy uncle. As a matter of fact I had a wacky Aunt and Uncle. Aunt Edie and Uncle Hank. They were delightfully nuts. They were artists, he a sculptor, she painted in oils. He made vases and beautiful art pieces. She drew fences you could drag a stick along, they were so real. They were political activists and campaigned for McGovern. They flashed peace signs and wore fringe. Well not Hank. Every day he wore slacks, a short-sleeve button-down dress shirt and tie over his bit of a belly, to go with is black horn-framed glasses; of the first hipster generation he was. They were called beatniks then. Aunt Edie in her barrette and peasant skirts and campaign buttons he in his hornrims and big black shoes haunted local poetry bars and open mics where, often, their art was displayed. They were talented, outspoken and quite successful. Brooklyn, from their art studio, was beautiful then. Brownstones and falling leaves, little shops and gin joints and, to us from the suburbs down to visit for the weekend, it was magical.
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We would get to spin the big pottery wheel, like in that movie, with Uncle Hank behind us. We’d fold clay over the wire to get out the bubbles and throw pots and misshapen cups that they treasured. We’d stand in front of the big easel and an empty canvas, dwarfed by the palette board with the thumb hole and paint splotches in our little hands. It was wonderful! You could leave the door open and crazy people would wander in and talk to you. The neighbor had a pet duck on a leash. We loved to go.
It was then, with them, that I first experienced The Beat Generation. They exposed us to art and literature and took us to museums and galleries and eventually an open mic at a local beat club to hear and encourage us to read our poetry. It was a cartoon, complete with the cool-cat-stoned-out-of-his-head bongo player, snapping fingers and lots of barrettes. I’m sure there were at least a dozen copies of On The Road in that room that held maybe 30 souls, including the owner. I’ll never forget it. I sat in a beanbag chair on the floor with my little brother and we listened to singer/songwriter dudes and their protest songs and heartbreakingly bittersweet poetry, some so bad it was better than good.
We snapped our fingers and raised our fists, we sang Pete Seeger songs and blowing in the wind or something… and we drank bitter coffee in little cups. The guy even let me take a turn on the bongo, he insisted and one of them offered his guitar. I did pretty good. I wanted so badly to sing one of my songs but I was 9 or something and too scared to go up. That was the point, wasn’t it? Exposing young ones to culture, our culture, local culture, real people making real art for the love of making art. Months later I got up and read my lyrics as a poem. I cried when I was done. I was hooked. They opened my eyes then fed my addiction with books and art class and music. Uncle Hank is gone now, pulled under a bus by his backpack, an amazing human. A true artist and later in life a gifted teacher to mentally disabled children whom he loved as his own. Edie still lives in Queens and is gettin on in years but I love to talk to her and thank her for the art, the “cultcha” as she would say, and the music. Those experiences helped shape me into who I am…
With that being said, I had an amazing experience the other day. We went to see our friend Sunnie Paxson play music for a live performance of The Beat Generation a wonderful, live, almost docudrama-quality show that looks back on the beginnings of Beat and how jazz played such a part in the growth and proliferation of, arguably, some of the best poetry of the day. A real feel for the vibe, daddy-o.
I met John Evans who, though Canadian, has an unmistakable Village vibe as if he, too, was forever sitting in a bean bag somewhere snapping his fingers, down low by the money pocket, strutting that jazz walk wherever he goes. Well, he’s been to LA now. A fabulous show at Kulak’s Woodshed with The Sunnie Paxson Quartet.
Gaye Hardiman from All The World Music helped put it together. A cool little spot in Valley Village, Kulak’s Woodshed is and has been a place where local musicians blossom and poets read their hearts off pages in notebooks, a place where spoken word is no longer a thing of the past. They had comfy chairs and a great sound system and cameras and lights and they broadcast the entire show on the ‘net. A step up from beatnik bars to be sure, it somehow had that same vibe. The wacky bongo player replaced by Jimmy Paxson’s hair. The bitter coffee was served in solo cups, the soulful sax of Doug Webb with Sunnie and Sekou Bunch synchronized and jivin’. We snapped our fingers a lot. It was wonderful!
Good jazz has a way of making you cool by association. When musicians like that are playing, even if it is an old song you’ve heard before, when they hit it you know it and you have to bop your head or tap a foot or better yet snap, slow, down, low. It’s about the smirk; you can see it on Sunnie’s face when she nails the solo. Did I mention she arranged and directed the music for the show? Impeccably timed to shadow John’s monologues and vamps, all of them able to, inside the structure, take liberties and play for the moment and make you feel it, never stomping on or missing a beat. Delightful!
As with most live shows there was so much to enjoy here that the “review” is difficult. The musicians, as I said, are stellar. Sunnie Paxson has such an innate understanding of music (not to diminish in the slightest her earnest study). She is just a natural and her education, it seems, has never quite achieved terminal velocity as she is better than ever. She arranged the music and, knowing each of the musicians rather well, she was able to do so in all 5 voices, leaving a big sandbox of sound for John to play in. Doug Webb is the same, so when handed charts with room to play… he played! This guy puts his back into it, he is simply fun to watch. Reading as effortlessly as vamping and vamping with John as if he was in his head.
Sekou Bunch on the bottom with his relentlessly cool, bigbadbassguy sound on the upright and so, so tasty technique on the 5 string. When Cynthia Calhoun and he played “Strange Fruit” the harmony was simply angelic. As the siren, Cynthia sang out gut-wrenching lyrics with the bittersweet soul of our past. Changing costumes and characters, she took us on a sultry road trip down Route 66. Jimmy’s brushes on a great cocktail kit fit the room just right and when chaos was required he stepped up. I gotta say there were times when John was painting a city scene with words and Jimmy Paxson managed to make traffic and city sounds inside the music. It was a little eerie. He was very good at the chaos, including creative lips on snare and other advanced percussion techniques. If you had closed your eyes… you could have been in the heart of the city with a jazz band in park. Nicely done folks. As talented and prolific as these people are, at the end you really got the sense that this wasn’t just another gig for them. This one was special.
Now, I hesitate to “review” John Evans. He has been reviewed by the some of the world’s best critics while acting in or producing the best of the world’s artistic works, some of which he wrote. So instead of reviewing the show, let me tell you how it felt.
The Beat Generation left me feeling a bit nostalgic and a lot more cool. I left there with a better view of the times and a better understanding of the poetry and the writings I had read and enjoyed so long ago. The show uses the broader, more 3-D view of hindsight that encompasses the times and all the authors as they interacted in life as well as on the page. The view includes the passion of a generation that embraced and deliberated and argued their truths. A view that expresses the frustration of voices feeling unheard. The show - willingly or unintentionally I will leave it up to you - makes it abundantly clear that we are still having the same conversations, still demanding the same changes, still looking for answers to life’s oldest conflicts and… the Beat goes on.
A Playlist of Tasty Riffs from the 2 August performance
of The Beat Generation with John Evans and
The Sunnie Paxson Quartet.
You can catch Cynthia Calhoun, as well The Sunnie Paxson and Mark Vincent All-Star Band among a star-studded cast of blues greats at the MAD Catfish Blues Festival, Sept.5th and 6th, at the Santa Anita Racetrack in Arcadia, CA.
A Conversation with the inimitable John Evans
From John Evans’ point of view, Shakespeare to Kerouac is not as difficult a trip as you would think. If you listen to our conversation he explains: it’s all about the timing.
Click the Green arrow below to listen to A Conversation With John Evans
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