Night Music (1989-90)

The recent passing of David Sanborn (it happened back in May) recently got me thinking about the TV show he cohosted with Jools Holland back when I was a teenager. It was called Night Music. Well, apparently, the show was originally titled Sunday Night, and I’m not sure when the name changed, or whether I caught any episodes of it back when it was called that. I do vividly remember tuning in to watch Night Music, though.

For a music kid like me, it was amazing that this show exist: a major network TV show that featured jazz music? Sure, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bootsy Collins, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Leonard Cohen all played the show… but they could get on TV anytime, and often were. Where else, though, could you see Sonny Rollins, or Miles Davis, or Carla Bley, or the other jazz folks who played the show? Where else could you see Sonny Rollins sit in with Leonard Cohen, for example? Where else could you see a black and white clip of Count Basie’s big band or Coleman Hawkins or a young Sonny Rollins on network TV back then? (When can you now, for that matter—on network TV, that is?)

I also vividly remember seeing Kenny Garrett playing his “straight alto” sax in Miles Davis’ band—in their rendition of “Mr. Pastorius”—and wondering what the hell kind of sax it was. You can see at the section starting about 36 minutes into this clip:

It wouldn’t be very long before Miles was gone, too. This was the closest a kid like me, out on the Canadian prairie, would get to seeing the man play live, and it meant a lot to me. And that’s just one of many acts I first saw on Night Music. What’s wild is that I kind of took for granted that the show existed, until it was gone. Then, there was nothing else like it. 

There probably will never again be anything like Night Music, either. I suppose we don’t need it as badly, now: we can see as much live and archival jazz on screens as we want, right? There’s already a lifetime’s worth on Youtube, and more getting uploaded everyday. We can even see crazy collaborations, sometimes, on Youtube these days, though not as regularly as we could when Night Music was airing. 

Back in the 1980s, Night Music was a kind of oasis for kids like me. I’ve always been grateful to have had the show to watch for as long as we did. I cannot see mainstream network TV airing anything like this at anytime, so the show really was a sort of miracle. (Actually, it took some finagling. Sanborn mentioned in some interview how, just to get unusual artists booked, they had to get described as having a “Phil Collins” type sound, even when that was really not to the case. The suits were, even as the show aired 

If you missed out on it—or if you’re a bit younger than me—some of the non-jazz acts might strike you as strange. (I don’t know if anyone now remembers bands like Was (Not Was) or The Roches; I sure didn’t till I rewatched some episodes.) In some ways, the show would be a weird time capsule, capturing an eclectic bunch of musicians and styles that were current in the late 80s and early 90s, if it were available on DVD. I’d have a copy if it were, but it’s not, and it apparently never will be: people have asked the rights owners, and they seem to have no interest in releasing it. But if you’re interested in checking it out, there’s a couple of caches of the show that are easy to find: one’s on The Internet Archive, and the other is, of course, on Youtube

A Positive Change

There’s an exercise I do in my writing class. It’s actually designed to give students practice working with modals like “should,” and “must” and “might” and “can.” One of the places where we use these kinds of modals a lot is when we are giving advice, since of course using the imperative is less polite and bears a higher chance of offending the recipient of the advice. 

So I’ve devised this “Dear Abby” type exercise. Students choose one of five letters requesting advice. The situations are all different:

  • Someone is feeling depressed in general and burnt out from work
  • After months of flirting, someone confessed romantic attraction to someone and got rejected
  • Someone is stuck sharing a dormitory room with a roommate who never showers, brushes their teeth, or washes their clothes*
  • A parent is worried because their daughter has started biting other kids at daycare
  • Someone has moved to a new city is is feeling isolated and lonely

I’m not going to pretend all the advice students come up with is good. For example, there’s a fair bit of “eat something nice,” as if a favorite meal or tasty snack will fix everything. Likewise, in the situation with the stinky dorm roomate, there’s an alarming frequency with which—due to the university’s failure to implement a sensible system of dealing with such problems—people advise the student either to stop bathing themselves, as a form of revenge or reverse psychology, or to simply switch rooms, which solves their problem but forces someone else to deal with it instead. 

All that said, I’ve noticed a pretty positive change when it comes to that first letter.

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Remembering Susannah McCorkle

Today 23 years ago, Susannah McCorkle passed. It was a suicide, after years of struggling with depression, like so many (most?) suicides are. You can read about her life a lot of places, but I liked this profile best. 

I only saw McCorkle perform once: that was almost a decade before she passed, back when the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival was a bigger event, and more big-name acts from around the world stopped by while crossing Canada. McCorkle was charismatic and luminous, her performance fascinating. Her “vocalise” performances of several famous jazz solos set to lyrics of her own devising mesmerized me even then, in my very early 20s, and her rendition of the Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary tune “Here’s to Life” (here’s the inaugural Shirley Horn version, since McCorkle seems not to have recorded it) caught my attention so much that when fall came, I asked my saxophone teacher whether he had a copy of the lead sheet. He gave me one, and I practiced it, though the chance to play it never came for me.  

I was also impressed with her ability to sing in multiple languages. I’m pretty sure she sang a third of the show in Portuguese, probably including “Waters of March”:

Reportedly this Jobim piece became her theme song in the 90s. McCorkle’s struggled to find the joy she infused into that song, and in the end her depression and a series of career setbacks (after a career where she never reached the ostensible “top tier” of the field) proved too much for her to accept. But I prefer to see her having survived it all as long as she did, and having made such striking music, a triumph in the face of crushing odds. With most singers, I don’t pay much attention to the lyrics of songs, I have to admit: I’m not wired for it, or that’s what I thought till I heard McCorkle, whose treatment of lyrics has a kind of crystal clarity that demands one’s attention. Though she was a complicated woman, reportedly unlikeable to anyone who reads the biography of her life (Linda Dahl’s Haunted Heart)—and what’s more a part of the jazz tradition than being unlikeable in real life?—it saddens me to know she passed alone, leaping from a window. Did she know people would still be listening to her decades later? Could she care? I don’t know. But I’m one of those who is still occasionally listening to her. 

Something Tookish!

I’ve just realized that I never posted about a game I published on itch.io last year. The game is called Something Tookish! It’s not a wholly original game design, but rather a hack of the popular Brindlewood Bay RPG. The elevator pitch for Brindlewood Bay could be summed up as Golden Girls meets Murder She Wrote with a streak of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” 

Well, as soon as I read through the rules, I immediately started thinking about the cozy halfling game that was going with my Sunday night RPG group.

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