Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What Would Happen...

...if Congress ended up being unable to pass a "bailout" bill this week, but the markets righted themselves anyway? Would people finally see that Congress as it stands at this moment is largely irrelevant? And would it cause people to send every incumbent home on Election Day, because the time seems ripe for a complete housecleaning?

Yes, I realize that something probably has to be done about this problem, no matter how much there might be a temptation to just let the market do its thing. While this week's problems may have been the fault of under-regulation, it's more than possible that over-regulation might be even worse. And I hate to see some members of Congress using this occasion to play politics as usual even now, seemingly putting party ahead of country once again. As Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds is prone to say, I'll believe it's a crisis when the people who are telling me it's a crisis act like it's a crisis. Too many people in Congress aren't doing that yet. And if it really is a crisis, well...a pox on their House for screwing around like this.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The Best Jazz Album Ever?
This Statement Is "Kind of True"

There was a good article in the paper yesterday about a recording that's near and dear to the hearts of many jazz listeners: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. On the eve of the release of the 50th anniversary collector's edition of the famed recording, the jury is still out on whether "Best Jazz Album Ever" is a fitting title for this work. As the Dallas Morning News' Thor Christensen writes,
Kind of Blue was just 3 years old in 1962, but Miles Davis was already fed up with the spotlight that album and its successors were shining on him.

"It bugs me, because I'm not that important," the trumpeter told Playboy. "Why is it that people have so much to say about me?"If he were alive, the grumpy genius probably wouldn't be happy about the lavish 50th birthday party being given to Kind of Blue, which comes out Tuesday as a four-disc box set with a list price of $110.

Nor would he agree with its reputation as the best album in jazz history – although he'd have a tough time convincing the world. So many critics and fans agree on the greatest-ever label that it's all but etched in marble.
I can certainly make that argument in the positive, but the naysayers may well have their points:
The problem is that as sublime as the album is, it's too mellow to be canonized as the ultimate achievement in jazz, a music born in rowdy bordellos, bars and dance halls.
As the title suggests, Kind of Blue isn't so much a jazz album as an experiment in the blues. It's mournful, melancholy and slower than molasses in January.

"Miles sounded lonely, like he was sitting alone on an iceberg on the North Pole," Kind of Blue drummer Jimmy Cobb said in Made in Heaven, a 2005 short film about the album.

That's exactly the remote quality Mr. Davis was going for.

"The music has to have air in it – you can't fill all the holes," Mr. Davis told the St. Petersburg Times shortly before he died in 1991.
But the album's place in jazz history is cemented, if for no other reason than it's acknowledged as the launching pad for the style known as modal jazz:
Both Mr. Davis and [pianist Bill] Evans were already experts at cool jazz, but they envisioned Kind of Blue as a total deep freeze. Their secret weapon was modal jazz – a then-new concept where musicians improvised over basic scales, or modes, instead of complex chords.

Mr. Davis didn't invent modal jazz. But in one grand stroke, he taught the world how liberating it could be.

"It's one thing to just play a tune, but it's another thing to practically create a new language of music, which is what Kind of Blue did," pianist Chick Corea said in the book Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.
And while audiences may not have responded right away, the selling power of the music half a century later is astounding:
Released on Aug. 17, 1959, the album wasn't a huge commercial hit like Dave Brubeck's Time Out, the year's other cool-jazz classic. But critics raved, with Downbeat calling Mr. Davis' album remarkable and comparing the music to Maurice Ravel and Belá Bartók.

With time, the album's profile mushroomed so much it became one of the top-selling jazz albums ever, with three million copies sold in the U.S. and an estimated 10 million worldwide. Today, it's the only jazz CD a lot of people own.
I have certainly sent a lot of young jazz students out in search of that CD, and I have in fact called it the one CD that should be in everyone's jazz collection. And pretty much everybody uses Miles' solo on the opening "So What" as their first transcription assignment for me, either in lessons or improv class.

I suppose that I'll have to plunk down the green for this boxed set eventually, as it sounds intriguing:
The box set (list price: $110) features the original album on both CD and blue vinyl, an additional CD of outtakes and live tracks, a 55-minute documentary DVD, various pieces of memorabilia and a 60-page book of essays.
So if it's not the greatest jazz album ever (and there's no saying that such a title really has to be held by a single recording), it's certainly one of the most influential, and its staying power can't be disputed. If jazz truly is the American classical music, one would hope that people are still having this debate a century from now, when the 150th anniversary boxed set is released, likely on a microchip to be implanted in your head.

Feel free to weigh in on this debate in the comments.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

No Need to Be Snarky; These Puppies Can Play

Last night brought the first long-awaited show of the fall semester: The CD release party by Snarky Puppy, the jazz/funk/dance/party band out of Denton that has enjoyed a growing fan base (both local and otherwise) since its founding several years ago.

The band is heavy on horns (which on the recordings include One O'Clock Lab Band alumni Brian Donohoe, Clay Pritchard, Justin Stanton, Sara Jacovino and Chris Bullock) and keyboards (which include local hero Bobby Sparks and ex-Miles Davis sideman Bernard Wright), with tasty rhythms by Grammy-winning drummer Robert "Sput" Searight, and anchored by bassist/founder Michael League, whose composing/arranging talents stood out during his student days. They play a music that's almost beyond category: Funky jazz? Jazzy funk? Dance music for the musically fluent? Whatever you want to call it, it works, and it was a great experience to see them live for the first time.

The reason for this gig at Hailey's club was to celebrate the release of the band's third CD, Bring Us the Bright. Those of us who were lucky enough to pre-order have already had a copy in our hands for slightly over a week now (and it's rarely left the CD player in Kevmobile 2.0 since then). It was the second of a three-night series in the D/FW area before the band embarks on a tour that takes them from New Orleans to Atlanta, followed by stops in places like Virginia, New York, Toronto and Milwaukee before stopping back home in early November.

Over the course of the past several years, the group has become a true collective, with up to 18 people performing on some tracks. While the entire gang wasn't there tonight, the band up on stage did boast ten members, and it was great to see Wright, Sparks and Searight as part of the proceedings. The near-capacity crowd was there to party, and it didn't appear that anyone walked away disappointed.

The evening was of course heavy on the new material, which is outstanding, and--like most jazz-based music--sounded fresh in a live setting, whether from new solos (of course!) to slightly different twists in the arrangement (tempo, a new ending, etc.). Tunes that stood out were the Metheny-tinged title track (which also serves as the CD's opener), the tight and technically dazzling "Loose Screws," and the tribute to Jewish klezmer music, "34 Klezma." When the band found out it had a few extra minutes, they closed the evening on a mellower note than one might have expected with the CD's closer, "And Soon We'll Be One."

In the signature box of every email I send is the following John Philip Sousa quote: "Jazz will endure as long as people hear it through their feet instead of their brains." Snarky Puppy certainly embodies the ideal of this quote, and seeing them live is a requirement to complete the picture of what this band can do; as fine as the CD's are (and trust me, they are indeed fine), there's a certain energy that can only be captured when the band is onstage. I had heard some of my Denton friends talk about this band for a few years now, and I finally got the first two CD's early this year, but the stars and planets hadn't aligned to allow me to see them in person until last night. Trust me when I say that I can't wait until the tour brings them back home for a bit, and I'll be bringing even more people next time.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Snarky Puppy invited a few friends to their party as well; in fact, the evening was a quadruple feature. Going right before Snarky (and sharing co-headliner status in the minds of many) was John Ellis and Doublewide, another group whose recent CD (Dance Like There's No Tomorrow) has also had a prominent place in the Kevmobile's rotation for the past several months. The tenorist, a native of rural North Carolina who did most of his formal music study in New Orleans, has put together a fun romp featuring organist Gary Versace, drummer Jason Marsalis (yes, of that family), and sousaphonist Matt Perrine (doing crazy bass lines, as is the rage in some circles nowadays). So basically, it's an enhanced organ trio, which Ellis spices up with odd meters, starts and stops, and so on. Add Ellis' technical fluency and clean altissimo register to the organ grooves, and it comes out sounding like Joshua Redman's Elastic Band with a southern twist...and a tuba.

While Ellis didn't have any of his bandmates in tow last night (Versace, for one, was in Wisconsin, playing at one of my friends' schools with another group) the replacements (whose names escaped me) on organ and drums proved more than competent, negotiating their way through the saxophonist's tricky charts as if they'd been playing them for years (and these may be his top-call understudies, for all I know). It would have been fun to have Perrine on the gig, as the sousaphone adds a great deal to the sound of the band, but his absence just gave more space to Ellis, who is a serious young talent on the saxophone. With any luck, he and Doublewide will come back to town and do a headliner set on their own, but last night was a great sampler of what he can do and the perfect setup for the festivities that followed.

Also on the bill were The Suite Unraveling, a Brooklyn-based band that actually started out in Denton, led by UNT-ex Lily Maase on guitar and featuring two tenor saxes plus bass and drums. The music, while based in jazz, often contained elements of rock and the avant-garde as well. It wasn't exactly something that one could whistle while walking down the street, but it was interesting, and saxophonist Evan Smith contributed some impressive solo work.

Opening the entire thing was the Burntsienna Trio, a folk-rock-country group whose lead singer played a banjo instead of the usual guitar. Style-wise, they didn't seem to fit in with the other bands on the bill, but evidently they're old friends with Maase and some of her Suite Unraveling bandmates. They were entertaining nonetheless.

(Ten bucks, four bands--what a bargain!)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Wiest O'Clock, Part 2

I wrote a few weeks ago about the inaugural performance of the One O'Clock Lab Band under interim director Steve Wiest, and last night, as it has for the past eleven years, the band took its show on the road to the Conference Center at UT-Dallas, which is nearly in my backyard. (That last part is a big deal for me, because it's also close to my own college, so this gig provides a great opportunity for some of my students to see the band without having to make the trek up to Denton.)

As always, the band's repertoire proved to be a fine "sampler" of the program: A number of tunes from the forthcoming Lab 2008, a couple from the Thad Jones library, the Grammy-nominated arrangement of Chick Corea's "Got a Match?" and compositions by Wiest and just-retired director Neil Slater. There were also some tunes that were new to me: An arrangement (or "derangement," if you wish) by the somewhat obscure but adventurous Kenton writer Bob Graettinger, as well as a new tune by student composer (and former bandmember) Dave Richards that was written about a week ago. And, not surprisingly, the gig was capped off with the favorite One O'Clock encore tune, Pete Rugolo's "Machito".

But the thing that stood out the most was how much the band had come together in the past three weeks. He's taken a disparate group of players--several of whom are new to the school, and only six of whom have returned from last year's band--and molded them into a swinging, cohesive unit. I love getting to hear some of the tunes that were written when Wiest and I were in school, and I also appreciate both the sensitive dynamics and the unbridled energy of the band, credit for the latter of which can be given to the man up front himself. Every time I've seen Wiest this semester and asked him how it's going, he always says something to the effect of "I'm having a ball!" At a school that's known for having "dark vibes" at times, it's great to see someone approaching his work with the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning.

As I've said before, I certainly hope that Wiest gets the permanent gig next year (and yes, protocol requires me to acknowledge my bias here: Steve's a personal friend and, as mentioned earlier, a former schoolmate. But I've been known to offer constructive criticism of other aspects of the program, even when those decisions were made by other former schoolmates, so I think some objectivity remains. Bottom line: I like what I'm hearing right now). But even if that doesn't happen, this is going to be a great year (and Wiest will remain on faculty no matter what).

Up next: A tribute to Maynard Ferguson in Ft. Worth on October 17.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Scamming the Spam Scammers

Not much time for a regular post today, but I had to pass this on: A blogger responded to one of those Nigerian spam scam emails and strings them along for months on end. Read the whole thing; it's hilarious.

Congratulations; it's a...computer error! A patient who went to the hospital for stomach pains was eventually informed of the reason: Pregnancy. Which is pretty odd, considering that said patient is a 71-year-old grandfather. (The "good news" did indeed come to him via computer error, of the human data entry variety.)

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Political Expression vs. Free Speech on Campus: Where Do Professors Draw the Line?

I almost never discuss politics on this blog, at least in terms of taking one side or another. I'll talk about what I'd like to see in government--and take Those Currently In Charge to task if I don't feel like they're living up to that, but you'll almost never see me come out in favor of a specific candidate or party.

That's by design, by the way. My opinion is that educators should remain outwardly apolitical if at all possible. The subject doesn't come up in most classes anyway (it's certainly unlikely to see the light of day in my music ensembles, and I doubt it would ever be pertinent in College Algebra either), and it can be intimidating to students if they see their professor's office door sporting signs for a particular candidate (and even more so if the prof is wearing a button in class). Some might say that political science professors in particular have little choice but to divulge their views, because it's part of of the subject matter, but I would counter that people in that discipline might have to be even more careful to maintain a sense of balance, lest their class morph into Indoctrination 101.

It's an even bigger issue for me in my public-school job, because I'm a "teacher of choice." In other words, as a private instructor (a lot of the rest of the education world might call what I do "tutoring," but it goes beyond that, since I don't just help people who are failing or behind in their work), people don't have to study with me--they choose to do so. Some students whom I can't fit in during the day come to the house for lessons, and you'd best believe that my house never sports a political yard sign of any sort; I'd hate to think that someone might just stop coming because I don't support the candidates that they do, but in today's polarized political atmosphere, it's certainly possible. (I rarely even discuss politics with my friends for the same reason, saving my gripes for the kinds of things done by the government that nearly everybody hates; there's plenty of common ground there, as you might imagine.)

But some people would ask, "What about free speech?" Sure, I'm all about that, but I don't think that it necessarily needs to be commingled with the workplace; there's the entire rest of the day to discuss such things. But some people would disagree, and some of those people may be running into problems if they teach at the University of illinois, where the administration is cracking down on overt political expression:
Sporting an Obama or McCain button? Driving a car with one of the campaigns’ bumper stickers? You might need to be careful on University of Illinois campuses.

The university system’s ethics office sent a notice to all employees, including faculty members, telling them that they could not wear political buttons on campus or feature bumper stickers on cars parked in campus lots unless the messages on those buttons and stickers were strictly nonpartisan. In addition, professors were told that they could not attend political rallies on campuses if those rallies express support for a candidate or political party.

Faculty leaders were stunned by the directives. Some wrote to the ethics office to ask if the message was intended to apply to professors; they were told that it was. At Illinois campuses, as elsewhere, many professors do demonstrate their political convictions on buttons, bumper stickers and the like.

[...]Mike Lillich, a spokesman for the university system, said that President Joseph White was asked about the ethics memo this week and that he understands why faculty members are concerned. “The campus traditions of free speech are very different from the DMV,” said Lillich.

White told professors that he thinks “this is resolvable,” and that they should use “common sense.” But for now, Lillich said of the policy sent to all employees, “officially, it does apply.”
In light of what I said earlier, the bulk of this policy doesn't bother me (and as noted above, if people do use common sense, there shouldn't be too many problems), especially in regard to the buttons, office door signs, etc. But the bumper sticker part is probably going a little far, because it's not like the car is a permanent fixture on campus in the manner of an office door. And besides, it's not like most students will know what car belongs to which professor, unless said prof is seen entering or exiting the car (or unless the parking place has a sign with his/her name on it).

Read the whole thing, including the comments, which cover a wide spectrum. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorites, from someone who goes by "malclave:"
My take on this... professors should NOT be allowed to promote their own political beliefs to students while lecturing, during office hours, or at other times while officially engaged in the student-teacher role. Discussion of political issues in general, of course, is fine, depending on the course. I never really did care what my Physics professor thought about the roles of the political parties in influencing economic policy.

So, take that button off when you’re teaching. If your laptop has a political bumper sticker on it, either cover it up when you’re on university time, or leave it locked in your office desk. Especially if it’s a public university.

Other than that, you have the same rights to political speech as anyone else.
Hat tip: Althouse, where the hostess notes that the university might be using the rule to hide a lack of political diversity among its own faculty. Also, commenter "Chip Ahoy" notes:
That still leaves t-shirts, jean patches, posters in classrooms, writing on windows, placards, windshield sunscreens with political messages, flags, political films run in classrooms, hats, coffee mugs with political messages, shoes with names written on them, parrots trained to say things, biased school plays, invited speakers, canes with candidate's names running up the length, names 'accidentally' slipped into daily roll call, subliminal messages inserted into ordinary messages over the PA system, mass text messaging, scarves, belts, ties, shoe laces, names stenciled onto seats.
Funny. So what do you think? Does the policy go too far, or would it be OK without the bumper sticker portion? Should professors talk partisan politics at all, or should that be saved for when they're not "wearing the professor's hat," so to speak? Fire away in the comments.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

You Know My Answer to This One...

Last week, I mentioned the budget crisis in the Dallas Independent School District. Today, there was a great letter to the editor in the DMN, from a reader named Aimee Ventura, which included the following:
I wonder if Michael Hinojosa remembers when he used to be a teacher in the Dallas ISD: Does he remember being underpaid, not appreciated and overworked? Does he remember having to spend his own money on supplies? Does he remember having to spend his own money on field trips so a student wouldn't be left out? Does he remember that some days he would have air conditioning or heat in his room and other days he wouldn't?
And in light of the fact that many teachers are probably going to get let go because of the DISD's budget mess, Ventura invites Hinojosa to think back and remember his own teaching days.

Yeah, you know where this is going; I've said it many times: There's no reason that Hinojosa, or any of his administrator peers, should have to sit back and remember their teaching days, because they never should have stopped teaching in the first place. Wouldn't a district that's obviously failing--and could stand to trim a bunch of administrative fat instead of letting go of a lot of teachers--be the perfect place to try this idea?

(And yes, I know that some people might think the very opposite--that the ex-teachers screwed this up so badly that people from the financial world should be brought in to run things in their stead. But first of all, I have no problem with such experts being in charge of district finances--but I bet some of them could be extremely good economics teachers as well. And second, look at this week's headlines; it's not like the financial "geniuses" of the business world have done all that well themselves.)

As I said last time, not one teacher should be let go before every superfluous administrator is jettisoned first. I realize that some of these people are in place because of government requirements, and getting rid of them would also mean that we had to make major changes in the government; trust me, I'm in favor of that as well. But still, I think that the DISD has been presented a great opportunity to let the teachers run the show, or at least to let those running the show remain teachers. It certainly can't be any worse than the situation the district is facing now...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Will Honda's Newest Be a Good Fit?

I've been very happy with Kevmobile 2.0 since I made the purchase in January of this year. As you probably know, it's an '08 Honda Fit, and they seem to have been flying off the lots recently, as gas has gotten more expensive. I received an email from Honda a while back with a link to the 2009 Fit's site, and tonight, I read a preliminary review of the new Fit tonight, from Car and Driver magazine, Here's an excerpt:
We love the Honda Fit. Roomy inside and more fun to drive than a team of coked-up sled dogs, we’ve awarded it a place on our 10Best Cars list two straight years, and it decimated the competition in a seven-car comparison test. Of course, that was the old Fit. There’s now a new model, completely redesigned for 2009, and a few of us in the office have had a chance to take a spin behind the wheel.

And here’s where the problems start. After nearly every drive of a new car, we tend to gather and discuss our individual impressions. More often than not they jibe. When they don’t, though—whoo, boy—expect some fireworks. Regarding this new Fit, we agree on its character—more refined, slightly less frenetic—but we don’t all share a similar outlook on the vehicle’s appeal. West Coast bureau chief Steve Siler, for example, bemoans the car’s newfound maturity and loss of ultimate tossability. On the other hand, associate editor Erik Johnson is more than happy with the changes, finding value in showing people that affordable, fuel-efficient small cars don’t have to be refrigerator boxes with Radio Flyer stickers on the sides and dashboards made of string cheese.
Read the whole thing; it sounds like the jury's still out on whether the improvements are all for the better. (My favorite quote from the review: "The new Fit has 10 cup holders, man.")

Hat tip: Mickey Kaus at Slate, who tries to read between the lines of the review and comes out with the opinion that Honda messed the Fit up. (Of course, he also thinks the "old" Fit--a.k.a. mine--is ugly, so maybe we have to take his opinions with a grain of salt. The Fit's not ugly; this is ugly.

UPDATE: When talking about the review with my Fit Brother, Coop, the next day, we both realized that, despite the hoopla over the new Fit, the next new one that would really interest either one of us was the one that came out when the calendar said "2015" or something like that.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Cowboys Won at Lambeau Field for the First Time in History Last Night...

...and after next year's roadtrips, they'll be coming home to this:

Having only the phone-cam in my possession yesterday afternoon, I couldn't quite take a picture (from the upper deck of Rangers Ballpark) that really does justice to the massiveness of the Cowboys' future stadium (nobody knows what it's going to be called yet, but the common local nickname is "Jerry World" because it's the brainchild of owner Jerry Jones), but trust me, this thing is going to be big. And with no individual game tickets for sale, I wonder how long it will be before I actually get to visit (besides on a tour).

Still, with the way the team played last night, it certainly should be exciting next year when this thing opens up.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The View From the Top Row

This is how it looked from our seats at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington this afternoon. The game itself wasn't so great--the Rangers lost to the Angels (again), 7-3, and the only scoring on Texas' part came in the bottom of the ninth--but the view wasn't bad from way up there, we were in the shade the entire time, and there was a really nice breeze blowing through for most of the game. And to top it all off, I got the very last dollar Drumstick in the upper level on "Ice Cream Sunday."

The Cowboys are playing in a few minutes, and football will eclipse baseball in the local consciousness pretty soon (if it hasn't done so already). But I'm already looking forward to the spring.

A Road more traveled: There's a lot of infrastructure improvement being made near the Ballpark (part of it in conjunction with the Three Bridges project that will help traffic get to the new Cowboys stadium that's being built down the street), and one of the things that I noticed was that Road to Six Flags now extends past the north part of the stadium, and in the process, it eliminated the cool tributes-in-concrete (to each season that the Rangers had played) on the now much-smaller sidewalk. (See a cool animated aerial view of the Three Bridges project here.)

But the funny thing is that, for the first time that I can remember, the western portion of Road to Six Flags actually goes to Six Flags! It had stopped at the ballpark in the past, and I always thought the name of that portion was fairly ironic before now. (Evidently, it was opened at the beginning of the season, but I'd entered the ballpark from the south during previous visits this year and hadn't seen the new construction until today.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Avast There, Ye Scurvy Dog

Once again, it's International Talk Like a Pirate Day, and I hope you got to have fun with it (if you haven't yet, just say YARR or something of the sort). I got to do that a little bit, because the high school where I was teaching today was playing a school in football tonight whose mascot is the Pirates (and it's that school's homecoming tonight; does anyone think that was by accident?). and my school's theme this week was "Take the ARGH out of the Pirates," which involved the wearing of eye patches, Long John Silver hats and the like. It dovetailed nicely with talking like a pirate, so greetings were exchanged that way at the end of lessons. (I'm sure they had fun tonight in mARRching band.)

Other than that, though, no pirate-talking activities took place, as I didn't stop at StARRbucks or Super TARRget during the day. (I wish I'd thought of it at lunch, though, since I had bARRbecue.)

I found out about this "holiday" quite a few years ago, when Dave Barry picked up on it and made it known around the world through his blog. It may not seem like a real holiday, but it's no worse than National Hug Your Cat Day or anything like that. And it never grows old to me. James Lileks agrees, noting that "Some people find this day tiresome. I find it delightful."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Wrong Solution to This Problem

Most people in the Metroplex have read about the recent revelation that the Dallas Independent School District--yes, the same one that decided to lower its standards a month ago--has found itself with a $64 million shortfall from last year's budget. The district had to tap into its reserve funds to cover that shortfall, and now, on the front page of this morning's paper, the district has told employees to prepare for possible layoffs:
Dallas school employees should brace for layoffs.

School trustees will meet Friday to consider declaring a financial emergency to allow the district to begin cutting staff.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa met with principals and directors Monday and laid out a plan to fix the budget woes. Campus leaders were told to start preparing staff lists to look for excess positions.

The need to cut jobs arose after the Dallas Independent School District used nearly half its reserve fund to cover a $64 million shortfall in the 2007-08 budget. Dr. Hinojosa disclosed the budget hole last week.

Several teachers expressed anger Tuesday over possibly losing their jobs because of the budget problems.
As well they should. Let me come out and make a bold statement here: Not a single teacher should lose his or her job because of this shortfall. The cuts should come from elsewhere; specifically from among the administration.

Why? Here are two good reasons:
  • The teachers didn't cause this mess; the administration did. They should be forced to pay for their own mistakes. It's accountability, plain and simple. Even if a teacher somehow went over budget on something, there are people who oversee those things in the central office, and the buck ultimately stops with them.

  • Teachers are more important to the school district than administrators. Why do schools exist? For teaching. Who's involved with teaching? Teachers (duhh). What should anyone else employed by a school district be doing? Making it easier for teachers to teach and then getting out of their way while they do so. Who is the least important person in the process? The one whose job keeps him or her the greatest distance away from where actual teaching is taking place. And where is that place in most districts? The administration building.
Let's be brutally honest here: If the Associate Vice Superintendent for Curriculum Development in the Northwest Quadrant lost his or her job, nobody would notice besides some family members and maybe the guy down the hall. (And lest you think I'm stating a ridiculous example, the administration of the DISD was profiled a few years ago, and it's pretty much that bad.) On the other hand, if a teacher lost his or her job, a whole bunch of people would notice, especially the students whom the district is supposed to be serving.

And that's the problem here: The upper levels of many school districts suffer from a failure to serve. By and large, people don't do well with power; they lose sight of why they are where they are in the first place and make it all about them. If administrators remained active teachers upon assuming their new duties, there would be less of a chance that their servants' hearts would diminish, as is so often the case now.

If a district is in over its head, financially speaking, it's certainly time to trim the fat. But before a single teacher is let go, they need to make sure that 3700 Ross Avenue (that's the district's headquarters, of course) is 100% fat-free.

Anyone want to bet that this actually happens?

(Yeah, I didn't think so.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Syndicate: Let the Discussion Begin

A few weeks ago, I posted about the new "listening room" policy at the Syndicate, the pool hall/music lounge at UNT. And now, the faculty member responsible for the new policy has posted comments at the original post, and he welcomes more discussion on the topic. So let's use that post as a forum for that subject (go there, not here; I've disabled comments on this post so that everything will end up in one place). I've been told that UNT students don't have to post anonymously, but Blogger will still allow you to do that (or make up a creative alias, for that matter) if you so desire. Just keep it civil, please; I'm looking to host a well-thought-out discussion here, not a flame war.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Where's the Talk of Freedom?

I don't talk politics on this blog (in fact, as a teacher, I consider it my duty to remain outwardly apolitical; no signs will grace my yard, and no stickers will grace my car), but I do feel the need to talk about one aspect of the current presidential campaign that was mentioned in a recent column by Steve Chapman in Reason Magazine: How come nobody is talking about freedom right now?

Chapman opens his column with a quote from Barry Goldwater, in his 1964 Presidential nomination acceptance speech:
We must, and we shall, set the tide running again in the cause of freedom. And this party, with its every action, every word, every breath, and every heartbeat, has but a single resolve, and that is freedom.
And then Chapman wonders why nobody was giving any speeches like that during the recent party conventions:
This year's Republican National Convention had a different theme for each day. Monday was "Serving a Cause Greater than Self." Tuesday was "Service," Wednesday was "Reform," and Thursday was "Peace."

So what was missing? Only what used to be held up as the central ideal of the party. The heirs of Goldwater couldn't spare a day for freedom.

Neither could the Democrats. Their daily topics this year were "One Nation," "Renewing America's Promise," and "Securing America's Future." The party proclaimed "an agenda that emphasizes the security of our nation, strong economic growth, affordable health care for all Americans, retirement security, honest government, and civil rights." Expanding and upholding individual liberty? Not so much.

Forty-four years after Goldwater's declaration, it's clear that collectivism, not individualism, is the reigning creed of Republicans as well as Democrats. Individuals are not valuable and precious in their own right but as a means for those in power to achieve their grand ambitions.
Read the whole thing. This attitude among the major parties is definitely a problem, so much so that it might well be a good idea to just dismantle both of them and start from scratch. I've proposed these ideas before: Term limits for not only Congress but the entire Washington bureaucracy as well (nobody spends more than ten years suckling at the government teat; after that, you have to go get an actual job in the productive class); a return to the citizen-legislator who helps the nation with a set of specific skills and then returns to the private sector after a time. Government should defend the shores and tweak a few things to help the proverbial trains run on time, but otherwise, it should just leave people alone. And the federal government should certainly shrink in size; leave the things to the states that they ought to be doing (education, for one) and put a sunset date on every federal entity, many of which have long outlived their usefulness and exist only as a solution in search of a problem.

A lot of people out there need to remember that the government exists for the people--not the other way around. I'll leave you with a quote from the article:
"All previous systems had regarded man as a sacrificial means to the ends of others, and society as an end in itself," wrote the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. "The United States regarded man as an end in himself, and society as a means to the peaceful, orderly, voluntary co-existence of individuals."
May we strive to elect people who remember this ideal.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

D/FW Dodges a Bullet; Greater Houston, Not So Much

First, the good news: All that Dallas/Ft. Worth proper appeared to get from the remnants of Hurricane Ike was a good few hours of (admittedly much-needed) rainfall. Sure, there was some wind, but nothing unmanageable; what was then a tropical storm by the time it got to this part of the state veered just east enough to spare us the brunt of its power. In a way, it was like those snow days that always get hyped around here in the winter: The storm's bark was a lot worse than its bite.

Greater Houston, of course, was not so lucky, and Galveston and other coastal areas appear at first glance to have suffered some devastating losses. Two million-plus customers without power. Windows busted out of downtown high-rises, with broken glass (and office equipment!) littering the streets. Brennan's Restaurant burns to the ground (that was the Houston outpost of a New Orleans legend; what that family has gone through in the past three years!), and the Houston Texans football team's stadium was damaged. Sure, most of Galveston's residents evacuated in time, but there will be a lot of work to do in the weeks and months ahead for the area to even approach anything resembling normalcy.

I got a call from Mom and Dad (who live just outside of Houston) this morning, and when I saw that the call was from their cell phone, I knew what they were about to tell me: They were among the ones without power; it went out about one in the morning. They're not sure when it will come back on yet, but they were hoping to at least find an open restaurant by tonight so that they could get some dinner.

My heart goes out to all the people who have been affected by this storm; hopefully, everyone involved will work well together and provide a smoother recovery effort than they had after Katrina. And for those who were lucky enough to have gotten by without too much damage, the Houston Chronicle reminds people to reach out to a neighbor in need. We Texans are famous for that, after all.

Powerful images There was a lot of great video coverage of Ike on the Weather Channel, but this short clip pretty much said it all for me: In an area of the Houston suburb of Clear Lake where the power had gone out overnight, the only light to be seen came from exploding transformers.

Cute kid quote of the day: "I falled in the attic." --Five-year-old Jack King of Galveston, while sporting a bandage on his head from an injury when he fell out of the upper part of his house (where his family had taken refuge from Ike) and onto the garage floor. Jack and his family (including his ironically-named dad, Lee King) were featured in this story over the weekend.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Hunkering Down

So it appears that Hurricane Ike will be headed to the Dallas area in the morning. And if it seems really far inland to be having tropical storm warnings, well, this could be a very unusual time. I'm not worried about flooding here; we're only supposed to get about six inches of rain, and Casa de Kev is at the top of a small hill. The same steep driveway (pitched at about a 45-degree angle) that can be a curse during icy weather may well be a blessing during this rain. Other than that, it's pretty much the sustained winds that are a concern out here, although the fact that the houses are pretty close together out here is evidently a good thing.

Meanwhile, down in Sugar Land, Mom and Dad's place could get it much worse than here. They're in the part of Houston that was instructed to hunker down rather than clog the highways full of Galveston-area evacuees, so they've done what they can (bring in the patio furniture, etc.) and are just ready to ride the thing out. Flooding is more of a concern for them, though they're on a slight hill as well; perhaps the bulk of the water will converge on the golf course rather than in the neighborhoods.

I guess the thing we can prepare for most thoroughly is the possibility of the power going out sometime tomorrow. I managed to snag a little power-outage food (peanut butter, bread, jelly), and there's plenty of water on hand (which is good, because the water aisle at Super Target was nearly empty as of nine tonight). Both of my clock radios have battery backups, and I now have backup batteries for those battery backups (say that ten times fast!). I also have a full tank of gas (and was more than a little miffed that prices rose 15 cents a gallon over my 45-minute lunch break). I can conceivably let enough light in to read stuff if I don't have any power, and otherwise, I'm just preparing to be bored, bored, bored.

For those of you who are also in the crosshairs of this storm, be safe, and best of luck riding it out. If I post tomorrow, that's a good sign.

Holding up a whole hand now: Happy fifth birthday to my middle nephew, Caleb. Born in the first year of this blog, the joyous day was announced here.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Never Forget

Today, of course, is the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As someone said on the radio this morning, I doubt that anyone who was alive and aware that day will ever forget where they were and what they were doing when it happened.

Four years ago, in the second year of this blog, I asked others to post their recollections of the day and added my own, which I'll reprint here:

I was on a break from teaching, like every Tuesday, and actually spent the time of the attacks in blissful ignorance at a nearby Starbucks. I had CD's on in my car instead of the radio, so I totally missed the news on both the way over and the way back. I did hear someone listening to a radio on the Starbucks patio and they were talking about "the second plane," but it didn't register with me at all. (It amazed me later that nobody walked inside and told us about it.)

When I got back to the school, the flute teacher stopped me in the hallway and asked me if all my students were being pulled out of school (evidently hers were). I said, "No, why?" and she told me what had happened. I spent the rest of the day like everyone else, in shocked, depressed amazement, catching the news when I could. There I was, not even two weeks into being a homeowner, and the world suddenly felt so different. It added to the pall cast over everything when I found out that the sister of a girl I graduated from high school with was on Flight 93, the one that crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. (I know that there have been quite a few lists of names read aloud today, so let me share hers: Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas. May she rest in peace...)

The whole thing felt so surreal; how could anyone hate us that much? The concept of the suicide hijacking was unprecedented as well (before that, hijackers just usually wanted to go to Cuba, and that's why airline personnel were taught to cooperate with them rather than try to subdue them).

I know there are still terrorist plots being hatched, and people capable of carrying them out...but I hope nothing like this ever happens on U.S. soil again. Or anywhere, for that matter.

For those who may be new to reading this blog since then, I'll invite you to share your recollections in the comments to this post.

As I've said for several years now, I hope nobody tires of talking about this every once in a while, because if we stop talking, we might forget, and this is a day that need not be forgotten anytime soon.

Also check out this video montage of New York scenes from March of '02 by James Lileks (scroll all the way down to see the video).

As we remember the lost, we celebrate the new: Congrats to my cousin Matt and his wife on the birth of their first son, Jonah Daniel, yesterday morning. He makes a first-time grandmother out of my Aunt Nora, Mom's sister, and my late Uncle Dan would have been a very proud grandpa. Today may be a somber day for our nation, but thanks to Jonah and my middle nephew Caleb (whose birthday is tomorrow), today is also bookended by the vitality of young life.

Monday, September 08, 2008

I'm Still Allergic to Mondays

Today was the first long Monday of teaching (as in having to wake up at six and not finishing until around twelve hours after I started) since the week before Memorial Day, and it hit me like the proverbial ton o' bricks. Dragging the whole day, I was. (And talking like Yoda, I am.)

But it's good to finally get the first five-day week of school underway. I have a lot to do this semester, and I'll actually get more of it done when I'm pushed ahead by the momentum of what I've already done on a given day. Busy begets busy. The best and worst thing about summer is the off-and-on nature of my teaching, as I tend to lose that momentum during the constant breaks that I have during the day. Having a lot on my plate keeps me more focused than when things happen more sporadically.

Still, today was really long, and I was pretty exhausted when the teaching day was done. But after a little food in me (nine hours is a long time to go between lunch and dinner), I'm ready for the next step. That's right--the day's not over at 9 p.m., but what's left is an "elective"--I'm going to see one of my colleagues perform tonight, and I'll probably write about it tomorrow.

I hope your week is productive and eventful as well.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Tha Speling Poleece R Haveing Funn Hear

I've been making fun of misspellings on business signs since pretty much the earliest days of this blog (click the "Silly Signage" tag at the bottom of this post to see more). But today, the Dallas Morning News got into the act, and they're having a lot of fun with it:
A cup of regualar coffee sounds like the perfect way to start your day.

Wouldn't some cheep gas be nice? But if you park your car, you've been warned: No in-and-out priviliges.

These mangled spellings – on real-life signs around the Dallas-Fort Worth area – underline the obvious: Spelling isn't always high on our list.

And our grammar ain't that good, too.
And I think I forgot to blog about this one a while back, but some people are becoming the Grammar Police on their own:
Last month, two men were sentenced to probation and banned from national parks for a year after getting busted for fixing errors on a sign in Grand Canyon National Park.

The men travel the country correcting signs as part of the Typo Eradication Advancement League.

And, yeah, they might have crossed the line by messing with a historical sign in a national park, but they've got a point.

Across the country and locally, our land is littered with signs, posters, ads, menus – you name it – that are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors.

In some cases, human spell-checkers battle these boo-boos by fixing the errors on their own. Others snap pictures and trash the typos on their blogs.
Yup, the latter sure applies here.

Read the whole thing, which has some really funny examples, including one that I've blogged about before: A mangled version of the word "inconvenience" (which, this time, comes out as "inconveinance"). There are also some great examples of mangled grammar in school term papers, as collected by an SMU writing instructor with the great Grammar Police name of "Diana Grumbles."

And, as I've asked on earlier posts on this subject, please feel free to submit your own examples of silly signage or garbled grammar in the comments.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Kids Still Say the Darnedest Things a Few Years Later

A few years ago, I was teaching a sixth-grader who said funny things in lessons on several occasions. Here's an excerpt from perhaps the funniest exchange we ever had (in this case, he was playing a piece with two flats in it and kept repeatedly missing the E-flat):
ME: Someone kidnapped the E-flat! It's the case of the missing E-flat....
SIXTH-GRADER #2: Who cares? Who cares about flats? Sharps are what matter. The E-flat is like some wannabe off the streets. The F-sharp is the president.
So the same kid came in today with a scale sheet that he'd been given this year. The sheet was not very saxophone-friendly; as you might guess from the conversation above, saxophonists tend to prefer sharps to flats, and this sheet had several of them listed in flat keys, even though they could have been written in sharp keys. That prompted an exchange that referenced the previous one:

KID: I hate flats! Why would anyone write these scales in flats?
ME: Yeah, most saxophonists don't like flats at all, and I know you don't like 'em. Do you remember a few years ago when you said something about E-flat being a wannabe and F-sharp was the president?
KID: Yeah! That's right! Sharps are cool! Sharps are like the really popular kids that are all "gangsta" and everyone wants to hang around them.
ME: (laughs) And flats are what...the chess club?
KID: Exactly! They're like those little nerdy kids that always get picked on.

Again, maybe you had to be there, but I'll say it again: There's rarely a dull moment in my job.

(There are two other funny-kid moments in the post from which I retrieved the original exchange.)

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Wiest O'Clock

I was quite pleased last spring when, after the announcement of Neil Slater's retirement as director of UNT's famed One O'Clock Lab Band, my old schoolmate Steve Wiest was named as his interim replacement for this year. Wiest had already returned to our alma mater a year ago in other teaching capacities, but I can't think of anyone better to lead the school's flagship jazz ensemble (and I sure hope he gets a shot at the permanent job). Like Slater, Wiest is an accomplished composer and arranger, and he brings a new kind of energy to the proceedings. My expectations for the One O'Clock under Wiest's (figurative) baton included a continuation of the high level of performance we've come to expect from this group, with quite a few new twists thrown in over time.

And so far, from where I sit, Steve and the group have lived up to those expectations. Last night, at their inaugural gig at the Syndicate, Wiest trotted out a very young band with a lot of personnel changes (if I heard correctly, only six people from last spring's band remain, and some of them are in different positions than last time), but he brought out the best in them, and the future looks bright for this era.

Among the positives that I saw last night: A resurgence of some of the older One O'Clock tunes that hadn't been played in a while, such as Mario Cruz's take on "There Will Never Be Another You" and Lyle Mays' classic "Overture to the Royal Mongolian Suma Foosball Festival" (which hadn't been played at the Syndicate in who knows how many years; the last time I heard the big band version live was when I played it myself over four years ago); an increased emphasis on dynamics from the band (UNT may have a reputation as the "higher, faster, louder" school, but tonight proved that it doesn't always have to be that way); and other little innovative twists done seemingly on the fly by Wiest, especially when he walked back into the rhythm section and dictated some clever stop-time sections during the solos in the Kenton chestnut, "A Little Minor Booze."

As I said, this band is very young, but I look forward to watching them grow during the course of the year. Their next gig (to my knowledge) is September 27 at UT-Dallas, which is practically in my backyard. I'll be encouraging the students from my program to check it out.

Are you listening to me? Part of me wants to comment on the new "listening room" policy at the Syndicate, but another part thinks I should just leave well enough alone, especially since nobody has commented on the previous post yet. If you're so inclined, feel free to jump-start the conversation here or at the earlier post.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

In a World Where Voiceover Artists Are a Dime a Dozen, This Guy Stood Out

If I came up to you and said "Don LaFontaine died this week," you might well say, "Aw, that's too bad. And who exactly is Don LaFontaine again?"

And I guess you'd have a point; Don was not a household name, though all kinds of people are familiar with his work.

OK--suppose I told you that he was this guy:

Now you recognize him, right?

LaFontaine, one of the premier voiceover artists in the nation, did indeed pass away over the weekend. He made nearly 300,000 commercials and around 5,000 movie trailers in a 33-year career, and not all of them began with "In a world where...", although that was certainly one of his favorite catchphrases. That didn't come about by accident, either:
"We have to very rapidly establish the world we are transporting them to," he said of his viewers. "That's very easily done by saying, `In a world where ... violence rules.' `In a world where ... men are slaves and women are the conquerors.' You very rapidly set the scene."
As a guy who did voiceover work for my college radio station (and wouldn't at all mind to dabble it again, if the situation came up), I can truly say that LaFontaine was one of those guys that everyone wanted to emulate, even if we only knew him as "The Movie Guy" until a few years ago, when he did that satirical GEICO commercial that finally revealed the name and face behind the voice. At an age when many people have retired to the golf course, he remained active until nearly the end of his life, doing seven to ten voiceovers a day. (Nice work, if you can get it.)

More info about Don can be found at his WIkipedia page, his website, and this short YouTube documentary.

R.I.P., Don. Your voice will live on.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Concert Audience: Then and Now

In an email response to yesterday's post, a friend alerted me to this New York Times article from earlier this year, and after reading the whole thing, I thought it was interesting enough to merit its own post. It certainly put a new spin on history for me, because I had been under the impression that classical concerts had always been formal, sit-still-and-listen affairs. But evidently, that was far from the truth:
Concertgoers like you and me have become part police officer, part public offender. We prosecute the shuffled foot or rattled program, the errant whisper or misplaced cough. We tense at the end of a movement, fearful that one of the unwashed will begin to clap, bringing shame on us all. How serious we look, and how absurd we are.

When Chopin played his E minor Piano Concerto in Warsaw in 1830, other pieces were inserted between the first two movements.
“Silence is not what we artists want,” Kenneth Hamilton quotes Beethoven in “After the Golden Age,” a detailed reflection on concert behavior in the 19th and early 20th centuries published recently by Oxford University Press. “We want applause.”

George Bernard Shaw, wearing his music critic’s hat, wrote that the silence at a London performance of Liszt’s “Dante” Symphony represented not rapt attention but audience distaste. Liszt, Anton Rubinstein and virtuosos like them would have been offended had listeners not clapped between movements, although in Beethoven’s case the point is moot, given that hardly anybody played more than one movement of a Beethoven sonata at a time.
This is fascinating stuff. (How did I not learn this in music history class? Was I not paying attention that day, or did the professors skip over that area because they considered the subject too lowbrow?) Hamilton's book, from which the author of this article drew most of his material, sounds fascinating; I'll have to check it out. Here's more:
In condemning modern recitals as canned, without spontaneity, literal and deadened by solemnity, Mr. Hamilton sometimes overstates the case. In the best of circumstances silence during a good performance becomes something palpable, not just an absence of noise. Involved audiences can shout approval without making a sound.

In describing the hypocrisies of “golden age” pursuers and other nostalgia freaks, on the other hand, he has a point. If music is to go back to original instruments and original performance practices, it has to acknowledge original audiences too.

Elias Canetti’s 1960 book “Crowds and Power” offers the best metaphor for modern concerts: the Roman Catholic Mass. Worshipers accept instructions from an executive operating from a raised platform at the front. They speak when spoken to and otherwise shut up. Mr. Hamilton attributes a lot of this recently acquired holiness to the recording age, but I think it has more to do with Germanic art’s taking itself deadly seriously. Every Mozart sonata is like Wagner’s “Parsifal,” and listeners should get down on their knees.
This comparison (which I hadn't read before I posted) dovetails nicely with my Sunday school analogy from yesterday's post.

And it's interesting how a lot of us thought that "serious" concerts were always like Mass, when that wasn't the case at all:
Audience participation was taken for granted in the 1840s. The pianist Alexander Dreyschock was criticized for playing “so loud that it made it difficult for the ladies to talk,” Mr. Hamilton writes. Today’s listeners, still eager to make themselves known, have been reduced to subversive acts in a fascistic society. When they are not interested, they cough.
Certainly, there are some elements of modern concert etiquette that deserve to stay, no matter what the occasion--waiting until the breaks between pieces to enter the hall (instead of doing so whenever one pleases, and not even trying to keep the giant metal door from slamming behind oneself), not taking flash photography unless explicitly allowed to do so, leaving the crying baby with a sitter, turning off cell phones, and so on. But perhaps the continued atmosphere of extreme formality deserves some spirited debate.

Read the whole article; it's fascinating. And it begs the question: Which way is the "best" way to stage a concert? I think there's room for both the quiet-audience and engaged-audience routes. Think church here: In some congregations, everyone wears coat-and-tie or a dress, and traditional hymns are sung from a hymnal, with the help of an organ and a choir. In others, people wear shorts if they want, there's a rock band on stage, and there might not even be pews. The "best" way is the one that appeals to the audience, and there's a market for both these approaches (and other ways that haven't even been discussed here).

If you missed yesterday's post, feel free to jump-start the debate over there.

Monday, September 01, 2008

The Syndicate Vanguard?

A couple days ago, while surfing the UNT Jazz website (which always has a wealth of good information about upcoming performances and alumni news), I came across this post--a manifesto, if you wish, from the UNT jazz faculty:
Starting this semester, things will be different at the Syndicate.

The focus will be where it belongs: on the music. The Syndicate is now a listening room. While the small groups and big bands are playing, we’ll listen. No talking, no yelling. Talk between tunes, on the breaks, or outside. Bands will be able to program whatever they want because they know they will be heard. We know this is possible because this is how guest artists are treated. It’s time to give that same respect to your student peers.

—The UNT Jazz Studies Faculty
First, a little background on The Syndicate and Lab Band Night: The Syndicate, by day, is the longtime pool hall in the UNT Union. But by night (or at least Tuesday and Wednesday nights), it transforms into the campus nightclub where small groups and lab bands play on successive nights each week. They've done a very good job of recapturing the vibe of the former campus club, the Rock Bottom Lounge, and I rejoiced when the bands started playing there after having been exiled to off-campus venues (which were either too small, not in walking distance, or both) for several years following the RBL's closure. The cover charge is cheap, the music is great, and the crowds are usually huge and enthusiastic.

And I guess that was the problem; sometimes, the crowds were too enthusiastic for some people's tastes. The Syndicate sells beer and wine, and the heckling of the bands by audience members (usually members of other bands), fueled by alcohol as it was, has been legendary for some time. It's almost always in good fun (I've only seen that proverbial "line" get crossed on a few occasions), and, to me, it added a little something to the performance by giving jazz concerts a festive atmosphere (more on that in a minute). Among the most commonly-shouted-out stuff: "Tenor battle!" (whenever both tenor players soloed on the same tune); "[So-and-so] on lead third trombone!" (a shout-out to players who don't get as much attention as those in the more prominent chairs); and of course, the inevitable cry for whatever band is onstage to play the old Kenton barn-burner, "Machito" (as noted here, the tradition of yelling out requests for that tune goes back to at least the mid '90s).

But with the jazz faculty under new leadership for the first time in decades, it appears that the heckling has come to an end. One of my friends who's in school up there emailed me this morning to ask what I thought of the new policy, and this post serves as my (rather lengthy) reply.

After thinking about it for a while, I really have mixed feelings about the whole thing. I can see both good and bad aspects to it, so I might as well list them all here...

It's a good idea, because:
  • The musicians on stage have worked hard to prepare their music, and it detracts from the performance to have all the noise in the background (even when the hecklers aren't heckling, there's still a lot of talking going on). Granted, these folks aren't at the tables--they're standing up in the back, by the bar--but it does get noisy in there at times.

  • The flyer that's downloadable at the bottom of the post shows a picture of the legendary Village Vanguard in New York City. That's a "listening room" if there ever was one; it's all about the music. It's also a place where giants have walked, and the faculty is giving the student ensembles a bigtime compliment by suggesting that they're on the same level (and honestly, if anyplace deserves such accolades, it's UNT, where many of the musicians already play like professionals--and I'd say that even if I didn't have two degrees from the place).

  • Let's zero in on this sentence for a second: "Bands will be able to program whatever they want because they know they will be heard." They definitely have a point there. In all the years that I was in school--and all the years since I've been coming back to visit--there haven't been too many soft ballads programmed at these concerts; the new policy certainly allows for that.

    (Granted, there was a time when I was in school that Jim Riggs--who retired this summer after over three decades as the Two O'Clock's director--programmed a really soft tune with the band. He bluntly told the entire RBL to be quiet before they played that tune, and the audience complied. The new policy keeps current directors--especially the grad students, who haven't quite yet attained a Riggsian level of authority--from having to play "bad cop" in that situation; the policy does that for them in advance.)

  • The Syndicate does not exist in a bubble; some of the performers have friends and relatives come in from out of town to hear the performances, and prospective students may be visiting as well. A bit of excessive bacchanalia doesn't necessarily put on the best public face for the UNT program as a whole. It may even give the mistaken impression that the program lacks seriousness (this is far from the truth, of course, but as they say, perception is nine-tenths of reality).
But, on the other hand...

It's a bad idea, because:
  • Music students at UNT work really hard. Really, really hard. Yes, it's challenging to major in music in college anywhere, but the intensity is exponentially greater at UNT. The program is so big and highly competitive that nobody is too important to be replaced if they mess up too badly, and there's a line of folks below you who are chomping at the bit to take your spot; it truly is a microcosm of the real world of music. The pressure is extreme on occasion, and Lab Band Night is perhaps the one time during the week that these students can blow off steam and have a little fun. Now that avenue has been closed, and I can only hope that such relief can still be attained in a positive manner elsewhere.

  • The Village Vanguard is a legendary room. But it takes most people a long time to get to play there, and, in the meantime, there are a lot of dues to be paid at more "real-world" locations, such as the vast majority of the jazz venues here in Dallas. These places do their main business as restaurants, and on many occasions, people who aren't there for the music at all will get seated very close to the stage, and their (often loud) conversation not only takes away from the enjoyment of those who came to hear the band but can also prove a distraction to the musicians themselves.

    While the new Syndicate policy is undoubtedly a reaction to that situation as well, it doesn't teach the musicians how to deal with adversity--such as the guy at the front table selling stocks on his BlackBerry during the bass solo--later on. (And at least the Syndicate hecklers are paying attention to the music and clapping after the solos; I can't begin to tell you how many times my friends and I have had to clap extra-loudly--even at the end of the tune!--at some of those restaurants so as to "train" the rest of the audience to at least feign appreciation for what just went on.)

  • From where I sit, the heckling is usually funny 99% of the time; as I've said, it rarely crosses that proverbial line. It's become as much a part of the show as the show itself: Jazz and Comedy 101. It loses some of the "fun" element with the heckling gone, and it turns into yet another formal concert at a place where such things already abound.

  • And that's the thing: Jazz should be fun. (I think back to the famed Mercy, Mercy, Mercy album, where Cannonball Adderley's producer set up a bar in the Capitol Records studios and invited actual jazz fans--instead of the usual Hollywood glitterati--to the session in an effort to combine quality acoustics with a rowdy club atmosphere.) Jazz started out as dance music, and over the years, it morphed into an art form. But when it did, it lost a lot of its audience in the process.

    There has been plenty of criticism lobbed at those who would turn jazz into a museum piece, something that you have to sit perfectly still and listen to like classical music, rather than feel in your entire body like it was originally meant to be. The presence of live jazz on the college campus (along with the rise of jazz/dance music hybrids) has the potential to bring a lot of new listeners to the music--especially young people who want a lot more out of their musical experience than corporate pablum like Britney Aguilera and the BackSync Degrees. But the jazz audience may never grow if college kids are expected to act like they're in Sunday school while they're listening to it.
It probably sounds like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth at times, but, as I said, I have mixed feelings on this, so I'm playing an extreme version of devil's advocate here. If it seems contradictory for me to lament the noisy restaurants that serve as jazz venues in Dallas while touting the fun-charged atmosphere of the Syndicate up till now, please realize that what I'm saying is that there is room in the world for many different types of music venues: The Vanguard (where everyone is paying strict attention), the noisy restaurants (where the people may not seem to appreciate it, but musicians are making a living playing there), and the Syndicate up till now (where people are noisy but still pay attention, and they're interacting with the players, if in an unorthodox manner).

But while this loyal alumnus may offer a dose of healthy skepticism in this forum, I'll certainly respect the policy in person. (Keep in mind that I was never really a heckler myself, save for joining in with most of the rest of the place for an occasional "Hey!" or "Ho!" in the shout chorus of a lively tune, the obligatory "Machito" request or the random celebration of a tenor battle. But I always considered the heckling to be the domain of the current students, not the alumni.) I'm somewhat concerned with how this will be enforced (surely they won't use bouncers!), especially assuming that alcohol will still be sold there. Maybe more seating is needed to disperse the back-row group and get them closer to the music.

The policy's first test comes two nights from now, when the One O'Clock, under interim director Steve Wiest, takes the Syndicate stage. Here's hoping that everyone gets their Vanguard on and gives the policy a chance to work; after all, it can always be altered later on if it's not successful. (And maybe the Vanguard analogy holds the best solution: Start charging $10 per beer like they do, so that nobody can become intoxicated enough to want to heckle. But I don't think the bartender would care for that too much...)

The comments section has been pretty quiet here of late, but I'd love to hear from people on this, especially current UNT students (who are welcome to comment anonymously if they're concerned about faculty members possibly reading this) and my fellow alums. (You can even heckle me in the comments if you want, but I won't be able to fulfill your "Machito" request unless they have a video up or something.)

UPDATE: A friend from UNT points me to this New York Times article from this past January, which notes that concert etiquette (even at classical performances) was much different a century ago, when sitting silently would have been interpreted by the performer as a sign of distaste or indifference. Read the whole thing; it's fascinating.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A student from UNT who wishes to remain anonymous emails the following:
The Syndicate is obviously not about the drinking or cavorting. The very act of showing up to see one's peers is a sign of great respect. If we wanted to drink and yell for drinking and yelling's sake, we'd go to a bar or throw a house party.
I may have more to say on this subject after a visit or two to the "new" Syndicate; we'll see.

UPDATE 9/16/08: The faculty member who developed this policy responds in the comments, and we both invite further discussion there. Come join the conversation!