Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Portrait of a Spanish Poet (1959)

Portrait of a Spanish Poet by John Altoon, completed 1959

Los Angeles born artist John Altoon, spent nearly 5 years working on the painting he titled Portrait of a Spanish Poet. Often subtitled (Lorca), the piece is ostensibly a portrait of Spanish writer Federico García Lorca. It was completed in 1959 (the same year Altoon married B movie and television actress Fay Spain) and was included in Altoon's second solo show at the Ferus Gallery in 1961. By the time of that show Ferus had moved to its second location at 723 North La Cienega in West Los Angeles and had been under the direction of Irvin Blum for 3 years. Altoon's relationship with the gallery was firmly established by the late-'50s, being represented by Ferus. The painter had yet to fully transition to the more figurative approach he adopted in the 1960s, with the work being very much a product of his exposure to Abstract Expressionism due to his time spent in New York City as well as the Bay Area  School with exerted a strong influence on the LA art scene during the 1950s. 

John Altoon, Tony Lanreau, and Maggie Ryan, Venice, California, photo by William Claxton, 1959

The painting and Altoon made a cameo appearance on the dust jacket of the original 1959 edition of Laurence Lipton's The Holy Barbarians, the writer's survey of Beat Culture at the turn of the decade. Many (most?) had no idea that that giddy, shirtless beatnik in William Claxton's photo had painted the work of art hanging on the wall behind him, much less that he was the heart and soul of the burgeoning Ferus Gallery scene in West Los Angeles and Venice Beach. The connection was likely more due to Claxton, rather than Altoon laying any Beat Generation claims as the modern art circles on both Coasts tended to distance themselves from the Beat poets in spite of any lifestyle similarities.


Jazz Guitar: Jim Hall, Pacific Jazz 1227 12" LP, 1957, cover photo by William Claxton featuring John Altoon

Clax also played a role in Altoon's slightly earlier entree to mainstream exposure. As the staff photographer and cover art director for Dick Bock's Pacific Jazz Records, Claxton played a major role in the label's West Coast Artist Series that was begun some time in early 1956 as this excellent, highly recommended article outlines in detail. By the time it came to release guitarist Jim Hall's debut LP on the label, Bock and Claxton took a slightly different approach to the series by not only featuring the work or an emerging West Coast artist, but also by including a photo of the artist at work. The artist in question was John Altoon who was featured in the shot (albeit with his back to the camera). The device had already been used once the previously year for a Chico Hamilton Quintet release (also featuring Hall), but the Jim Hall/John Altoon/William Claxton image seems to capture the zeitgeist with slightly more authenticity. 

 Dick Bock, Jim Hall, John Altoon, and William Claxton, 1957

Altoon's career - and life - was short. He battled what some called true demons throughout his lifetime - but, in spite of his concerted efforts to manage his struggles, he died of a heart attack at the age of 44 in 1969. 

For more information about Altoon and the Ferus Gallery scene, I highly recommend Morgan Neville's 2008 documentary film The Cool School

If you live in or are going to be in the Los Angeles area before September 14, 2014, I strongly encourage you to visit the first major John Altoon retrospective, currently on exhibit at LACMA.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

TK Smith (2014)


Desert Oasis: The Midcentury Modern Guitars of TK Smith by Nick Rossi, photos by Jacqueline Di Milia, courtesy of the Fretboard Journal

Issue number 32 of the Fretboard Journal is now available at newsstands everywhere. I am very pleased to announce that it includes an article penned by yours truly profiling guitarist and guitar-maker TK Smith. I first heard about TK in 1990 when Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Trio released their debut LP on Dionysus Records and played in San Francisco to support the disc. I've been a fan of Smith's playing ever since. The path his life has taken is a very interesting one and it intersects with a lot of the topics covered on the pages of this weblog. I find his work to be beautiful, not only from the aesthetic perspective of someone who appreciates modernism, but also as someone who respects true craftsmanship. I also like that TK is part of a Southern California tradition - not in a convoluted way, but simple because he is both creative and curious. Plus he has great taste!

Fretboard Journal 32, Ry Cooder cover story, out now

TK Smith may be found online and you may also follow him on Instagram. And here's just a snippet of why he is one of the most interesting guitar players around…

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fazıl Bey'in Türk Kahvesi (1923)

Turkish coffee by Fazil Bey, photo copyright 2014 by Nick Rossi

Although the early history of coffee is one surrounded by many claims and much legend, it is generally agreed upon that the world's first coffeehouse opened in Istanbul, Turkey (then still Constantinople) around 1554-1555, due in no small part to the Ottoman Empire's conquest of that city 100 years earlier and the immediate influence that overtook the former Byzantine capital. It would take Western Europe another 100 years to catch up with the Ottomans in this regard before the first coffeehouse west of the Balkans opened in Venice, Italy in 1645. Austria and England soon followed suit and by the 18th Century coffee consumption was conspicuous throughout both the New and Old Worlds.

Fazıl Bey'in Türk Kahvesi, Kadıköy, Istanbul, photo by Nick Rossi, 2014

But the Turkish coffeehouse occupies a very special place in history. Dating all the way back to the 16th Century, it has provided the template that is still closely followed in current times. The coffeehouse was established in Istanbul as a public place of gathering, where art and politics were discussed, leisure was pursued, and - of course - coffee was sipped. It is a grand tradition and one that nearly every culture has co-opted to some extent over the subsequent 500 or so years. 


Exterior shop detail, photo by Nick Rossi, 2014

However the current state of the coffeehouse in Istanbul is one of transition. For years now, the traditional shops have often perceived as as old-fashioned and have been slowly disappearing from the intricate landscape of the city. In their place have moved the usual suspects: multinational conglomerates proffering contemporary Italianate blends in oversized to-go cups. Convenience has replaced conversation. Some of the youth have reacted by creating the same sort of coffee culture that one sees in San Francisco - namely premium coffee served in a very contemporary, hip setting. While the result can be rather pleasing - both aesthetically and to the palate - the result is remarkably similar to what would find in The Mission or The West Village.  


Interior view of the first floor looking out at the entrance, photo courtesy of the Fazel Bey website

All that said, there do exist some lingering examples of Istanbul's rich coffeehouse tradition. It takes some looking for sure and even then it takes some additional digging to find the good stuff. Fazıl Bey'in Türk Kahvesi roughly translates to Fazil Bey Turkish Coffeehouse in English and has been roasting, grinding, and serving its own coffee - in the Turkish manner - since 1923. And while that provenance may not seem much for a city that reaches back centuries, it is a very long time for coffeehouse in Istanbul that is still in operation. The arabica beans are imported from Brazil, which makes some sense as 1920 reflected Brazil's peak in supplying the world coffee. Roasted an arm's distance from where the coffee is prepared and just a few feet from where it is served, this simple 2-floor building is a modern marvel of efficiency. It somehow manages to be both cluttered and crowded as well as clean and inviting at the same time - it's clientele a mix of students, businessmen/women, more adventuresome tourists, and wizened old-timers. 


View of the cashier (right) with the roaster visible in the background, photo courtesy of the Fazel Bey website

The coffee? Some of the best that this writer had the pleasure of sampling during a recent weeklong visit to the city. A deep, rich flavor with hints of chocolate. The consistency lacked much of the grittiness that is endemic to the preparation process, while still maintaining body and the frothy head. It's color was a beautiful, almost deep red. Presentation goes a long way and having your coffee delivered on a silver platter accompanied with a small glass of water and a piece of lokum (aka Turkish delight) certainly added immensely to a rather enjoyable visit. 


The roaster and grinder, photo courtesy of the Fazel Bey website

As Turkey continues to struggle with its own evolving cultural identity - and the more nefarious elements of its current government - this foreigner certainly hopes that these traditions are cherished and preserved. It would be hard to make a case for preservation to UNESCO, but considering the contributions these humble shops have made to the world such a mission is almost worth considering. 


Photo of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, c.1930, the father of modern Turkey enjoying his coffee and cigarette; a copy of this photo hangs on the wall in Fazil Bey's

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fonts of Rome (2014)

All images, copyright 2014 by Nick Rossi

There is simply so much to love about the city of Rome. And while many are intoxicated by the smells, the sounds, or the taste of the food, what struck me most on my recent visit was the abundance of wonderful design in everyday things - beauty in a great sense of the word. Certainly, other cities have a more unified design (Berlin?) and still others may appeal to me more from a modernist aesthetic (New York?), but the even more eternal than before city of Rome continues to blatantly disregard style guidelines with such careless aplomb that should be appreciated and applauded.

Traveler's note: I HIGHLY recommend the travel guide Rome: Moods and Places published by Herb Lester Associates. Not only was it a daily part of my finding beauty in everyday objects thanks to designer Nate Luetkenhans, but it was authored by author, blogger, and friend JP Gaul who has a very unique insight to the city of Rome. 

Monday, March 10, 2014

Bill Crow (1958)

Bill Crow, double bass, Lambretta motor-scooter, West 4th Street, Greenwich Village, New York City, 1958

Jazz legend Bill Crow is a generous man. Not only was he kind enough to grant me permission to reproduce the above photo on today's post, but he spent some time answering a few questions that I thought would be of interest. Rarely on this blog do I explore the Italian motor-scooter aspect of the 20th Century modernist dispora, but this wonderful photo deserves some extra attention.

Bill starts off the story of his 1953 Lambretta 125 LD series 1 in 1954:

"I was living at 22 Cornelia Street in Manhattan in those days on the second floor. Cornelia Street only had parking on the east side and when the city went to alternate side parking, that street was only park-able on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I was driving an old Ford and was having so much trouble parking it that I sold it. I knew the writer Arnold Perl, who had a Lambretta over in the East Village. It may have been the first one in Manhattan. I realized that I could wheel it through my building and park it in the back yard so I bought one, their smallest model, from an agency in the west 50s that was selling them and figured out a way to carry the bass on it. I carried a small board with me that I could use to help me wheel the scooter up the three steps on my stoop at 22 Cornelia and I would chain it to a tree in the back yard."

The one-time blacklisted writer Perl has a fascinating tale of his own that certainly should be told in full some day. But back to our story. Crow was fortunate at the time to have a steady gig 3 miles uptown as part of pianist Marian McPartland's trio. He continues:

"At that time I was working six nights a week at the Hickory House on West 52nd Street and I left my bass there every night unless I had a record date or something. It was nice to ride the scooter midtown from my Village apartment and I could park it easily at the curb. I only carried the bass on it when I had a different job. While I was still living on Cornelia Street, the movie photographer Aram Avakian (George Avakian’s brother) shot a lot of footage of me carrying the bass on the scooter, which he intended to use in a documentary that he was planning about New York jazz clubs, but the film was sent to some funding organization in an appeal for a grant and I never heard any more about it."

Bill and I have discussed Avakian and film-making on these pages before (see link above), as that latter had an important role in the making of Jazz on a Summer's Day. Bill eventually found out that there was more to scootering than commuting for work:

"I took it camping one autumn, when Marian McPartland took 3 weeks off from the Hickory House to go home to England for a visit. I packed a pup tent and a sleeping bag on the luggage rack and drove up through the Adirondacks, up into Montreal, down along Lake Champlain, up to Baxter State Park in Maine, down to Acadia National Park, and on down the coast to Boston, where I met Marian who came back from England via Boston to visit some friends. We had lunch together and then I headed back to NYC. I stayed on the smallest roads I could find which still had a hard surface and really enjoyed seeing the northeast that way."

In 1956, Crow began a musical association with baritone saxophonist, composer, arranger, and bandleader Gerry Mulligan that would continue intermittently for several years. Mulligan was a bona fide international jazz star at the time which afforded Bill some unique opportunities:

"When I went to Italy around 1959 with Gerry Mulligan, I went to the Lambretta factory in Milano and bought a new scooter and had it shipped to New York. I sold the old one and I kept the new one in a garage on 7th Avenue next to Nick's. In the early 1960s I moved to West 20th Street in Chelsea and found another garage nearby where I kept the scooter chained to a water pipe."  


I asked Bill what finally signaled the end of this relationship with Lambrettas:


"When I returned from a later trip to Europe with Mulligan, I went to pick up the scooter and found that it had been smashed against the wall of the garage by a car or truck. The garage men claimed to not have noticed the damage. Their insurance company finally paid for the repairs, but I had already decided to buy a Volkswagen and I sold the scooter."

Thanks once again to Bill Crow for his time and consideration. It is truly an honor to have made his acquaintance via the internet.

**A footnote: according to Lambretta's official history; founded in 1947, the Milan, Italy motor-scooter manufacturing company did not start its USA division until 1955. Lambrettas were only available in a few American cities and in very limited quantities before that time.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Bird Lives! (1958)

Bird Lives! oil on canvas board painting by Ted Joans, 1958, courtesy of the de Young Museum, currently on exhibit through January 2015

The death of Charlie Parker on March 12, 1955 had both an immediate and lasting impact on the New York art community. It wasn't just the musicians who grieved and grappled with the truth that Bird was dead, the painters and poets too strongly felt the loss of one of their idols. He was a hero made flesh: many of them knew Parker as much from seeing him around their Greenwich Village and Lower East Side (there wasn't an East Village yet) neighborhoods as much as they did from his stage appearances. Of course, they knew his records and would check him out at The Open Door on West 3rd Street when they could afford to do so, but the notion of the starving artist wasn't a punchline once upon a time.

Poster, The Open Door, Greenwich Village, New York City, 1955

According to the somewhat controversial record producer and writer Ross Russell, who owned Dial Records and who recorded some of Parker's most critically acclaimed music, within "a few days of the alto player's death there appeared among the graffiti on the walls in the Village and in subways, scrawled in black crayon or squirted out of pressurized paint canisters, the legend 'Bird Lives!" (Bird Lives: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker by Ross Russell, New York; Charterhouse, 1973). Years later it was poet Ted Joans who was credited as the instigator of the graffiti. 

1955 newspaper obituary, source unknown

Ted Joans knew Charlie Parker and knew him somewhat well. Not too long after Joans arrival on the scene, he become known for his elaborate parties often costumed affairs. Author and promoter of the 1950s jazz sessions Robert Reisner claims that Bird turned up for one of these parties dressed as a Mau Mau and supposedly the January 1955 issue of John Preston Davis' groundbreaking African-American journal Our World featured one such party with Parker visible in the background. After returning from an extended engagement in Chicago in that same month, Bird was more or less a transient who relied upon the goodwill and couch space of others for shelter. At the time Joans shared a small apartment at 4 Barrow Street in the Village (don't go looking for it, it has been razed) just off of Sheridan Square and across the street from the Cafe Bohemia (that building is still there, occupied by the Barrow Street Ale House) and his roommate Ahmed Basheer brought a sick Parker home one night after finding Bird sprawled out on the sidewalk near their front door. As a result, Parker and Joans were de facto roommates off and on during last 2 months of the saxophonist's life.

Ted Joans at the Cafe Bizarre, Greenwich Village, New York, 1958

But just calling Ted Joans a poet is doing his legacy a disservice. Yes he was indeed a poet. In fact, he is now often referred to as one of of the original beat poets. Joans moved to Greenwich Village in 1951 around the age of 23 having moved to the big city from Illinois by way of Indiana University. Sadly, the history of the Beat Generation seems to have suffered from some degree of whitewashing as Joans seldom appears as more than a mere footnote. But he was clearly one of the first on the scene, connecting Gregory Corso not long after his arrival. He would later cite his biggest influences as Langston Hughes and André Breton. For his part, he thought himself as much as surrealist as he did a beatnik, although he certainly took advantage of the public interest in the latter as a way to have a forum for his art. By the time of his death in 2003, Joans had authored well over 30 books a remarkable body of work for any poet by anyone's standards.


The Hipsters by Ted Joans, Corinth Books, 1959

Joans creativity did not end with the printed word. At one point of time he was a trumpeter, although he reportedly threw his horn off a bridge as he felt the need to focus on other aspects of his life (this again according to Russell). He was a visual artist as well. Although largely known as a recluse, Joans befriended the Jackson Pollock and got to know the painter before Pollock died in the Summer of 1956. Joans most certainly was a painter, although examples of his work are relatively scarce both online and in the real world. However, one of his surviving works is from 1958 and is fittingly (for our story at least) titled Bird Lives!

The is only the tip of the iceberg that is the fascinating story of Ted Joans. I highly recommend digging deeper. 

Bird Lives! the painting is featured in San Francisco's de Young Museum Shaping Abstraction exhibit now through January 4, 2015.

As a teaser, here are a couple of short films that feature Joans a few years after the death of Charlie Parker. Bird Lives indeed!


Village Sunday by Stewart Wilensky, USA, 1960
(click on image above for fullscreen view)



Jazz and Poetry by Louis van Gasteren, Holland, 1964
(click through for a better screen view)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Coming Attractions (2014)

Word on the street confirms that the new documentary in the works about legendary English haberdasher and style-setter John Simons will be out in the Spring. Here's the trailer:
If you simply cannot wait, pop over to the shop (virtually). Not only is their Winter sale still on, but there are a lot of new items available, including some very nice chinos cut in Brooklyn by Hertling for John & Co. as profiled by Fitzgerald's Closet last week.


Print ad, Bass Weejuns, 1951

Why John? Did you watch the trailer? Still not convinced? Well. The world has not always been as small as it is. There was a time, not very long ago, when the look was still a secret society of sorts - but one in which a pair of Bass Weejuns performed the function of a signet ring. John's string of shops were not only the source of so much of the good stuff but they were also a meeting place for the likeminded. Plus they served as an inspiration for Statesiders like yours truly to dig deeper into what is now termed heritage clothing. I still remember the first time I walked into his shop in Covent Garden. I experienced an epiphany of sorts and I very much credit John Simons bringing a lot of what I was thinking around classic, American style into focus.

Keep your eye on Garmsville for updates about the documentary.