McCoy Tyner was one of the towering musicians of the 20th century

We lost a great one Friday — McCoy Tyner, one of the towering musicians of the 20th century. Tyner was the pianist on Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and his own “Enlightenment,” two extended works that are among the most spiritual in jazz. “Enlightenment” is one of my favorite albums.

I had the privilege of seeing Tyner in concert twice, once at the Jazz Workshop in the early ’70s, and then again about four years later at the Paradise.

A few years ago someone shared with me a video of Tyner’s quartet performing the full “Enlightenment” suite at the 1973 Montreux Jazz Festival — the concert that the album documents. I can’t seem to find it, but above is an extended highlight. God Almighty. And I mean that in several different ways.

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When Clayton Christensen and Jill Lepore tangled over ‘disruption theory’

Clayton Christensen. Photo (cc) 2011 by Betsy Weber.

Previously published at

Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s ideas about why some businesses adjust to competition and some don’t were so controversial that a battle broke out on Twitter within hours of his death last Friday at the age of 67.

“It’s easy for journalists to mock someone known for ‘disruption theory,’” said Nieman Lab editor Joshua Benton, “but Clay was a brilliant mind and one of the very nicest people I’ve ever sat across a desk from.”

That brought the first of several blistering retorts from Siva Vaidhyanathan, a prominent media-studies scholar at the University of Virginia: “He was not brilliant. He wrote simplistic, theological analyses of things he never understood.” Mathew Ingram of the Columbia Journalism Review defended Christensen, telling Vaidhyanathan, “I think he had some insights about disruption that were worthwhile.” I jumped in on Christensen’s side as well.

Christensen’s best-known critic by far, though, is Harvard historian Jill Lepore. Nearly six years ago, in a long essay for The New Yorker, Lepore lambasted Christensen’s theories as flights of fancy with little evidence to back them up.

I had read Christensen’s first book about disruption theory, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” and thought he had some provocative things to say about the struggling news business. So not long after Lepore’s piece appeared, I wrote a self-published essay for Medium about Lepore and Christensen’s battle of ideas, which I’m republishing here this week.

Obviously the world doesn’t look exactly the same in 2020 as it did in 2014. But if you’re wondering who Clay Christensen was and what disruption theory is all about, I hope you’ll find that this is a useful introduction. Continue reading “When Clayton Christensen and Jill Lepore tangled over ‘disruption theory’”

David Blight’s biography of Frederick Douglass

Photo from the Library of Congress Brady-Handy Collection

I just finished David Blight’s monumental (750 pages) biography “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.” Perhaps a controversial view: It would have been better at half the length, supplemented with 100 to 150 well-curated pages of Douglass’ lectures and writings.

Still, it’s a great work of scholarship, well deserving of the Pulitzer that it won, with deep dives into Abolitionism, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and emergence of Jim Crow and lynchings. And, of course, Douglass, perhaps the most remarkable public person of the 19th century, and his family.

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A somber Springsteen tells the story of his life

Those of us who were with Bruce Springsteen from the beginning (or, in my case, almost from the beginning) have certain expectations for how he should behave. One of those expectations is that he should not charge $850 so that well-heeled fans can see him on Broadway. That said, I was looking forward to watching “Springsteen on Broadway” on Netflix, which I finally had a chance to do Sunday night.

It’s very good, and moving in parts. Springsteen is a master storyteller, and he expertly wove the story of his life around his music. The flashes of ego won’t be surprising to anyone who’s read or listened to his excellent autobiography, “Born to Run.” And, after all, he can back it up.

Since I had already heard him read his autobiography for many, many hours, “Springsteen on Broadway” was somewhat superfluous. Most of the rearrangements of his songs were second-rate, although “My Hometown” (on solo piano) and “Land of Hope and Dreams” (on acoustic guitar) were far better than the originals.

My only quibble is that he struck the same somber, elegiac tone for two and a half hours, with no variation in the pacing — not even when his wife, Patti Scailfa, joined him on stage. (And how weird is it that they sang “Brilliant Disguise,” which is about his troubled first marriage?) About two hours in, I was more than ready for the E Street Band to come out and launch into the Detroit Medley.

I’d give “Springsteen on Broadway” four out of five stars, of interest mainly to Springsteen obsessives.

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Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018

Aretha Franklin performing in Dallas. 2007 photo by Ryan Arrowsmith via Wikipedia.

Aretha Franklin has died at the age of 76. This is an unimaginable loss. She was one of the great musicians of the post-World War II era, on a par with Miles Davis, Elvis, John Lennon, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Bob Dylan. Two years ago I had the privilege of attending an Aretha concert at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion. I’m recycling it today.

Aug. 22, 2016 — I had thought Friday night’s Aretha Franklin concert at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion would strictly be one for the bucket list. She may be one of history’s great singers (“Queen of Soul” hardly does her justice), but she’s also 74 and supposedly in shaky health. So Barbara and I were stunned to see her perform for nearly two hours, with her voice as strong as it was in her prime. She put on a thrilling show, backed by a 20-piece-plus orchestra. It was a performance for the ages.

I won’t attempt a review of the entire concert, but I do want to describe something that elevated her performance into something transcendent. Sitting at the piano, she played an extended solo during the opening of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” By extended, I mean she did two long verses. She’s really good. I thought she might be resting her voice. Then she sang it — wonderfully, of course. And, finally, she segued into a some testifying about her health crisis of a few years ago, and thanking God that when she returned to the hospital whatever the doctors had seen before was gone. (I can’t possibly do this justice—I’m just trying to give you some sense of it. You may remember that, for a time, Franklin was rumored to have pancreatic cancer, something she denied in a 2011 interview with Rolling Stone.)

At the end, overwhelmed, she started crying. She got up, walked over to a box of tissues, and for several minutes tried to compose herself while the orchestra continued to play. Then, incongruously, she turned to the crowd and said, “Are you all enjoying yourselves?” (That might not be word for word, as I wasn’t taking notes.) She launched into “Freeway of Love,” perhaps her most trivial hit—and crossed up the audience again, as the song eventually morphed into a chant of “Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!”

Yes, she closed with “Respect.” Who would have guessed that that wouldn’t be a high point? What had come earlier was unforgettable and transformative.

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The roots of Bob Dylan: Homer? Virgil? Try blues, country, and rock and roll

Bob Dylan in London’s Finsbury Park, 2013. Photo (cc) by Francisco Antunes.

I had been looking forward to the “On Point” Bob Dylan special during the long Thanksgiving drive. It was a disappointment. The guest was a Harvard professor named Richard F. Thomas, who’s written a new book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters.” Thomas’ main argument — as is generally the case with academic Dylanologists — is that Dylan matters because he is one of the great classic poets, on a par with Homer and Virgil. Thomas made the case mainly by pointing out how much Dylan has copied and pasted Virgil into his songs, which I’m pretty sure isn’t the same thing as writing poetry.

What I did like: Thomas and host Anthony Brooks quickly moved beyond the 1960s and treated the entire span of Dylan’s work as a unified whole, touching on songs like “Changing of the Guard,” his Christian period, and his great 2001 album “Love and Theft.” But rather than obsessing over Homer and Virgil, Thomas ought to think about the ways in which Dylan is the natural extension of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters, of Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams, of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Yes, Dylan’s ambitions were greater than those of his predecessors. But to invent some High Art tradition for Dylan rather than to deal with the tradition he actually comes out of does a disservice to what he actually accomplished.

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Errol Morris’ wonderful portrait of Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman

Elsa Dorfman. Photo copyright © 2010 by Tim Kennedy. All rights reserved.

Last weekend we had a chance to see “The B-Side,” Errol Morris’ wonderful documentary about the Cambridge portrait photographer Elsa Dorfman. I know Elsa through her husband, Harvey Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator. She also once took our family’s picture for a Boston Phoenix article. Our son, Tim, took Elsa’s photo a few years ago when he was attending photography school.

Dorfman is warm and outgoing, and her photos reflect that. Now mostly retired, she is best known for her work with a large-format Polaroid camera that takes 20-by-24-inch photos. And though she is known for her portraits of artists such as Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, she’s also taken photos of literally hundreds of ordinary families who found their way to her studio. In the film, she comes across as intensely proud and self-aware, yet still the same person who once sold her photos out of a shopping cart in Harvard Square.

Here’s some backstory that the film does not explain: Several years ago Morris wrote a book about Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor serving a life prison term after being convicted of murdering his pregnant wife and young children. The book brought Morris into contact with Silverglate and Dorfman, as Silverglate is a member of MacDonald’s legal team. As Morris’ book, “A Wilderness of Error,” clearly shows, MacDonald did not receive a fair trial and may actually be innocent. (I reviewed the book for BookForum.)

Morris is a master storyteller, and Dorfman is an ideal subject. As Richard Brody wrote recently in The New Yorker, Dorfman is “a remarkable presence, a cinematic character whose comments distill a lifetime of wisdom, self-awareness, frustration, and survivor’s pride.” Go see it.

My 1996 interview with the late Nat Hentoff about his years at Down Beat magazine

Nat Hentoff. Photo (cc) 2004 by K.G. Schneider.
Nat Hentoff. Photo (cc) 2004 by K.G. Schneider.

The great journalist and civil libertarian Nat Hentoff died on Saturday at the age of 91. In 1996 I had the privilege of interviewing Hentoff and his former colleague Dom Cerulli for Northeastern University’s alumni magazine. Hentoff and Cerulli, who died in 2013, were both Northeastern alumni, and both served as the editor of the jazz magazine Down Beat in the 1950s. I can’t find the clip, but I did manage to dig up my last rewrite before I turned the article in to my editor. I cannot defend the way the piece opens; all I can say is that I’m glad I’ve continued to improve as a writer. Hentoff was a giant. His death creates a deep void, especially at this moment of crisis.

It was the 1950s, Manhattan, 52nd Street. And it seemed like the whole world was in a groove.

Check it out—over there, at the Five Spot. It’s Thelonious Monk, plunking out the chords to “ ’Round Midnight” on the house piano.

Charlie Parker’s seen better days. You know how it is: sometimes he shows up, sometimes he doesn’t. But he’s still Bird, and if he can borrow an alto sax he’s supposed to be playing tonight at Birdland, the club they named after him.

Dizzy Gillespie’s around, of course, only now he’s not playing much bop. He’s got himself this new trumpet that’s bent up toward the ceiling, and he’s doing some Afro-Cuban thing.

Like the old guys? Well, they’re still holding forth. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, you name it.

Miles Davis, that skinny kid trumpet player who used to be in Bird’s band, is starting to turn heads. And Charles Mingus has a band that’s making the biggest, wildest noise you’ve ever heard.

“It was magical. It was incredible,” says Barry Kernfeld, editor of “The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz” (St. Martin’s, 1994).

It was also a hell of a lot to keep track of.

And from 1952 to ’59, two of the most important witnesses to this musical revolution were a couple of Northeastern guys, Nat Hentoff (Class of 1944) and Dom Cerulli (Class of 1951). They were the New York eyes and ears of Down Beat, a Chicago-based magazine that was—and still is—the most authoritative publication covering jazz.

Continue reading “My 1996 interview with the late Nat Hentoff about his years at Down Beat magazine”

Alphonse Mouzon, a great jazz drummer, has died

As 2016 draws to a close, another great artist has died. This one, though, was not a celebrity. Alphonse Mouzon was a terrific jazz drummer with a long, varied career. I know him best from McCoy Tyner’s Enlightenment (above), a suite that was recorded live at Montreux in 1973. (If you’ve never heard it, I recommend it. It is deeply spiritual in the manner of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, on which Tyner played.)

According to the New York Times obit, Mouzon “learned this fall that he had neuroendocrine cancer and used a crowdfunding platform to help pay for treatment.” Not that the deaths of Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, et al. weren’t every bit as tragic. But that’s a detail you don’t often see when reading about the death of a musician who at one time was fairly well known.

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And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to … Bob Dylan

I was thrilled to learn this morning that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although it’s a lifetime achievement award, he could have won 50 years ago just for “Visions of Johanna.”

I also hope his memoir “Chronicles: Volume One” is part of his Nobel portfolio. It is a stunning work that tells the largely fictional tale of a character named Bob Dylan. As Dylan once said, quoting Rimbaud, “I is another.”

Inside the museum, infinity goes up on trial. Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after awhile.

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