Monday, November 7, 2016

Canada, Who Are You?

In a box in my basement, I keep a small bag of letters from my Canadian friend Dayna. We got tight in high school in Phoenix, Arizona, but after she moved back home to Calgary, Alberta, we corresponded by mail. Growing up, cars with Manitoba and Saskatchewan license plates filled my city’s streets during the mild desert winters. “Another snowbird,” my dad would say from behind the wheel. “Be nice to them. They’re good for the economy.” Dayna was the first Canada I actually got to know.

For four years, Dayna and I kept in touch by exchanging mixtapes and letters filled with our teenage obsessions. Hers also contained tantalizing visions of a foreign land. She called dorks “knobs” and heavy-metal kids “bangers.” In the photos Dayna and her friends sent, their cars shimmered with a crystalline sheen and you could see their breath. It all seemed so exotic.

Every election cycle leaves thousands of horrified Americans vowing to move to Canada, myself included, but back then, I’d never traveled north of Montana. I didn’t know Ottawa from Montreal or the name of beloved Canadian culinary creations like the butter tart, but when Dayna wrote lines like “Just hang’n out in below-zero weather,” I wanted to know everything. After my family took our first trip north of the 49th parallel in 1994, I returned to Canada the next year, and the next. I’ve visited six times, traveling through Alberta and the Rocky Mountain parks, up to the Yukon, and camping alone on Vancouver Island, and I developed Canphilia.

I coined the term in my thirties when I realized how hard I’d started crushing on the place. I’d amassed a pile of Canadian books and magazines like The Walrus. I called my winter beanie a “toque” and drank my daily tea out of a white Tim Hortons mug that I’d pinched from a shop in Edmonton. “Toujours Frais” the logo says, “Always fresh.” I’d even toyed with moving to British Columbia, and here in these letters was the root of it all. Canada seemed like the perfect country: scenic, peaceful, friendly, progressive. Its national parks were the envy of the developed world. It had one of the highest standards of living, a low drinking age, and a functioning public-health system. Canada and the United States share the world’s longest international border, but beyond vague notions of Britishness, hockey, and maple-syrup production, it took a few years to really get to know the country beyond the stereotypes.

With a surface area of 3,854,085 square miles, Canada is the second-largest country in the world, after Russia. The cold North shapes the Canadian psyche, yet over 80% of the country’s 34 million inhabitants live in large urban centers within 125 miles of the US border. In his book Canadians, Roy MacGregor calls Canada “a country so large it defies generalities; defies, we sometimes think, even slight understanding.” In Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw, Will Ferguson says, “Canada is not a country but a collection of outposts.” Although the provinces and territories are united under the same flag, each possesses very different identities and problems, and the country’s size and heterogeneity make the idea of one national character impossible.

Because the two countries share a language, brands, and other recognizable features, both Americans and Canadians often describe Canada in American terms. Where we have Silicon Valley, Canada has Kanata, Ontario, the so-called “Silicon Valley North.” Canada celebrates its own Thanksgiving holiday, which shares a name but differs wildly from the American one. Canada has its own version of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, in Toronto, and its own B-movie genre, Canuxploitation, filled with such awesome-sounding pap as Cannibal Rollerbabes and FUBAR.

Ideal as it once seemed to me, Canada has familiar contradictions. Like the US, it has a disgraceful record of mistreating and marginalizing its First Nations. The massive northern territory of Nunavut is a stronghold of the Inuit people, and since its recent creation in 1999, it’s developed a homicide rate 1,000% higher than the Canadian average, and sees seven times more violent crime than the rest of the country. On the flip side, the Canadian people have sponsored Syrian refugees with more warmth and enthusiasm than many other developed nations. Despite its stunning national parks, Canada has also clear-cut its boreal forest and old-growth coastal forests, and it grows gross farm-raised salmon. But it also legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, outlawed the death penalty, and operates North America’s only federally authorized drug injection site. It gets confusing: Canada’s awesome, Canada’s as screwed up as us.

Part of our love-hate relationship involves economics. The US consumes over 80% of Canada’s exports and imports more oil and gas from Canada than from any other foreign country. The Keystone oil-sands pipeline deal exposed the ugly details of both our shared economic interests and philosophical differences. It also showed that Canadian business interests can become as exploitative and environmentally rapacious as America’s.

Years after first writing to Dayna, my Can-crush has matured enough to appreciate the country, warts and all. I see that being “Canadian” is about more than maple syrup and The Tragically Hip, but maple syrup really does pump through the country’s heart, as thieves recently proved when they stole $18 million worth of the stuff. The heist left people debating whether they were heroes or hoodlums. All of which raises an important question: where can a guy get some good butter tarts in America? I’m in the market.

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from Longreads

The Story of ‘Ella and Louis,’ 60 Years Later

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | November 2016 | 7 minutes (1,807 words)

Nineteen fifty-six was a defining year for American popular music. The foundations of rock and roll were solidified when Elvis Presley, newly signed to RCA Victor, released his eponymous first album. The harder-edged rockabilly band Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio did the same. The year’s jazz releases were just as iconic: “Chet Baker Sings” helped originate a smoother West Coast sound, and The Miles Davis Quintet would ultimately find four full-length albums worth of hard bop material recorded during only two day-long sessions. There was magic coming from every corner of musical expression — Glenn Gould, Sonny Rollins, The Jazz Messengers, Fats Domino — but one album, released in October of that year, was its own quiet revolution.

The album cover is a picture of two middle-aged black people, seated on folding chairs. The woman is in her late thirties, the man in his mid-fifties. She wears a plain print housedress and a wry expression; the man’s white socks are rolled at the ankles. A trumpet is on his lap, supporting his folded arms. There is no written information on the cover other than the name of the record label: “Verve,” it says. “A Panoramic True High Fidelity Record.” On the spine is the album’s title: “Ella and Louis.”

The first of three successful collaborations between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, “Ella and Louis” is nearly perfect. It is one of those works of art — and they don’t come along often — that seems to have always existed. It features two of the greatest artists the century produced: Armstrong, the innovator and ambassador of jazz, and Fitzgerald, its most gifted singer. The album was produced by a man almost solely responsible for bringing jazz into the realm of respectability and desegregating its audience, who founded the label which released it, and assembled the all-star team of musicians who made it so marvelous. “Ella and Louis” helped rekindle interest in what would become known as The Great American Songbook. Though it is something only American culture could produce, “Ella and Louis” was also something a large part of American society worked hard to prevent.

It started with Norman Granz, producer, promoter, and, by 1955, Ella Fitzgerald’s manager. “Any book on my life,” Granz told his biographer Tad Hershorn, “would start with my basic philosophy of fighting racial prejudice. I loved jazz, and jazz was my way of doing that.” Granz leveraged Fitzgerald’s already vaunted reputation to secure more prestigious, and higher paying, gigs. Once that was accomplished, he leveraged her popularity to breakdown segregated venues: If you wanted Ella, you integrated your audience.

Granz’ philosophy was simple: he considered many jazz greats as world class artists, and believed they should be paid as such. Accordingly, in 1944, he established Jazz at the Philharmonic in Los Angeles, bringing a nightclub jam session to a concert venue. The show was a sellout, and the live recording a best-seller. Subsequent JATP tours would include the biggest names in jazz.

It was never easy. Once, at a JATP concert in Houston, Texas, Granz caught a vice squad officer who Granz assumed was planting drugs in Fitzgerald’s dressing room toilet. When confronted, the cop put his gun in Granz’ stomach, saying, “I ought to shoot you.” Granz pushed hard against the Houston police department, resulting in the case being dropped.

Concurrent with taking over as Ella Fitzgerald’s manager, Granz announced the formation of Verve Records. “I was interested in how I could enhance Ella’s position, to make her a singer with more than just a cult following amongst jazz fans,” he said. “So I proposed to Ella that the first Verve album would not be a jazz project, but rather a songbook of the works of Cole Porter. I envisaged her doing a lot of composers. The trick was to change the backing enough so that, here and there, there would be signs of jazz.”

“When I recorded Ella,” Granz remembered, “I always put her out front, not a blend. The reason was that I frankly didn’t care about what happened to the music. It was there to support her. I’ve had conductors tell me that in bar 23 the trumpet player hit a wrong note. Well, I don’t care. I wasn’t making perfect records. If they came out perfectly, fine. But I wanted to make records in which Ella sounded best.” The first Verve album, “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook,” sold 100,000 copies in the first month.


Ella Fitzgerald and Norman Granz. Photo via The Jazz Word.

On August 15, 1956, the JATP performance at the Hollywood Bowl became the best-attended event of the venue’s history even though, eleven years before, they told Granz they would never host an event with the word “jazz” in the title. The program featured Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum, and Oscar Peterson — an up-and-coming pianist Granz brought to the States from his native Canada.

The next day, Fitzgerald and Armstrong met at the new Capitol Studios in Hollywood for a recording session. “My idea was to record the two of them as much as I could,” Granz said later, “because I had all kinds of ideas for utilizing Louie with Ella.” The virtuoso backing band was the Oscar Peterson Quartet, with Ray Brown on bass, Herb Ellis on guitar and Buddy Rich on drums. The product, eleven songs recorded in just one day, would become “Ella and Louis.”


Given all the musical firepower involved, it is an understated set. Most of the songs are downtempo, anchored by bassist Ray Brown’s impeccable timing and intonation. The vocals are mixed well up front, as on any pop record. Granz produced, but Armstrong was given ultimate say over songs and keys. The material is drawn mostly from show tunes and Fred Astaire musicals from the Great Depression, written by such masters as George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Hoagy Carmichael. The track list is a catalog of some of the strongest melodies ever conceived.

Fitzgerald is at the top of her form as a vocalist on “Ella and Louis.” Her diction and pitch are perfect. She is the wind under a falling autumn leaf on “Moonlight in Vermont,” despite the non-rhyming and occasionally clunky lyric (for some reason, every verse is a haiku). She makes some startling improvisational leaps — never at odds with the melody — but always lands on her feet.

Armstrong is her idiosyncratic partner. His trumpet is as declarative as ever. Though constant touring was starting to take a toll, his occasional flubbed note feels more like enthusiasm. He never forgot his mentor “Papa” Joe Oliver’s dictum: “get yourself a lead and you stick to it: Most of Armstrong’s trumpet solos on “Ella and Louis” are a recapitulation of the song’s melody, though with the delivery of a second line brass band. His harmonies, like his scat singing around Ella’s vocals, are odd and endearing. According to Granz, Armstrong “never deferred to the material. He did what he did, and that was the thing I was trying to capture. You could hear his breathing or sighing or, instead of the word, he’d come out with a sound. But to me that’s its quality.”

Thirty years before, recording with the Hot Five in Chicago, Armstrong cut vocals by shouting into an acoustic recording horn. On “Ella and Louis,” you can hear his wide vibrato dissolve into phlegmy breath, or his tone suddenly drop down to a low baritone, as if the microphone was placed on his very heart. It is an intimacy made more precious through imperfection.

Louis Armstrong’s road to cultural acceptance was long. In 1932, the year the “Ella and Louis” song “April in Paris” was composed, Armstrong appeared in the short film “A Rhapsody in Black and Blue” dressed in a leopard skin, as court musician for a bubble-filled dreamscape called Jazzlandia. His playing is as incredible as the film’s racist conceit. “Oh, chocolate drop, that’s me,” he sings:

‘Cause my hair is curly

Just because my teeth are pearly

Just because I always wear a smile

I like to dress up in the latest style

Just because I’m glad I’m livin’

Oh, I takes troubles all with a smile

Just because my color’s shade

Makes me different maybe

That’s why they call me Shine

The year before, 1931, Memphis police arrested Armstrong for sitting next to a white woman on a bus, even though she was his manager’s wife.

In 1956, Armstrong publicly boycotted his hometown of New Orleans, when it banned integrated bands. He wouldn’t return to perform there until after the Civil Rights Act undid the law in 1964. In 1957, he and his integrated audience were the target of a bombing attempt in Knoxville, Tennessee.

By “Ella and Louis,” Armstrong was the internationally recognized and beloved ambassador of jazz, who never lost his delight in the job description. “You know, it never seemed like we were really recording, because he always so happy,” Ella said of him.

“He came in like it was nothing to it — just gonna have a ball. And I would always mess up because I [was] so fascinated watching him that sometimes I wouldn’t come in on time on my song because he would go through the whole motion — “Sing it, Ella!” — and he’d be talking and cracking and making jokes while he’s talking and you don’t know whether you should sing or laugh, but that’s the kind of guy he was.”

Russ Garcia, who did the arrangements for the pairs’ third album “Porgy and Bess,” remembered things a little differently. “Louis annoyed her a little bit,” Garcia once said, laughing. “When she was singing a beautiful passage, he’d come in with his growling. She’d shoot him a sharp look and go on. It would throw her for a second. But it came off beautifully. Some people call that album “Whipped Cream and Sandpaper.”

Some truly wonderful music was released in 1956. In retrospect, it’s inevitable that talented white boys like Elvis Presley or Johnny Burnette would want to explore black idioms — they could do so, after all, with some grumbling but no censure. It makes sense that jazz pioneers like Art Blakey and Miles Davis and John Coltrane would push the boundaries of the form, but Louis Armstrong had been there first. It was his trumpet playing in the 1920s with the Hot Five that fixed the idea in the public consciousness of an improvisational lead instrument in a small band setting. All the rest, although wondrous, was commentary.

It was perhaps more of a cultural leap, in the middle of that tumultuous century, that two black performers could be considered the best interpreters of white show tunes, and that the extemporaneous heart of jazz could elevate the whole to iconic status, desegregating American popular culture in just eleven songs.


Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Matthew Giles

from Longreads

Saturday, November 5, 2016

‘No Woman’s Career Is Straight’

In conversations, though, with many of them over the past couple weeks, they all agreed: This, in the end, is probably how it had to be. A woman who operated purely as a feminist would have condemned herself to fighting a permanently outside fight. And a woman who never tested the limits of the role she agreed to play—tested it over and over—wouldn’t have built the thick skin and the savvy needed to keep going.

“Those experiences and changes she made to forge a path are so reflective of women of her generation,” said Sally McMillen, a 1966 Wellesley grad who recently retired as a professor of history, and women’s history, at Davidson College in North Carolina. “I have always maintained that our generation was the transition generation for women, pulled by traditions but grabbing for new opportunities as we could—constant compromises and even reinventing ourselves as needed.”

-At Politico Magazine, Michael Kruse has an outstanding history of Hillary Clinton’s career — and the compromises and concessions she had to make along the way.

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Friday, November 4, 2016

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Below, our favorite stories of the week.

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1. Trump’s Inconvenient Racial Truth

Nikole Hannah-Jones | The New York Times | Nov. 1, 2016 | 10 minutes (2,594 words)

“Regardless of how you feel about Trump, on this one thing he is right: The Democratic Party has taken black Americans for granted.”

2. Sex, Drugs, and Bestsellers: The Legend of the Literary Brat Pack

Jason Diamond | Harper’s Bazaar | Nov. 2, 2016 | 18 minutes (4,542 words)

A look back at the “literary brat pack”—Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz and a group of other writers in the 1980s as famous for their coke-fueled late nights at the Odeon as they were for publishing celebrated novels before the age of 30.

3. Madam Prescient: Raising the Spirit of American Radicalism

Jessa Crispin | The Baffler | Aug. 15, 2016 | 12 minutes (3,108 words)

Victoria Woodhull, a former prostitute, free-love advocate, and clairvoyant (and proponent of abolition, marriage reform, and education rights) ran for President of the US – in 1872.

4. The Lost Children of Soul Asylum’s ‘Runaway Train’ Video

Elon Green | Mel Magazine | Nov. 4, 2016 | 13 minutes (3,373 words)

Elon Green looks back at the making of Soul Asylum’s 1993 hit video for “Runaway Train,” and the missing children who were featured.

5. California Dreaming

Marian Bull | Eater | Nov. 4, 2016 | 25 minutes (6,277 words)

A profile of restaurant chef Jessica Koslow, who owns Sqirl, a hip L.A. restaurant that serves “grain bowls and hashes and salads” that “scream with acid and spice and herbs and the funk of fermentation.” Bull looks at the fetishization of “California food” and the lure of living in Southern California.

from Longreads

Marin Cogan On Political Reporting, Blogging, and Growing As a Journalist


“My first campaign was in 2012, and I did that for GQ, and it was essentially a blog. I was on the trail covering it every single day, multiple times a day. So I was trained pretty narrowly as a political reporter. But I always had this ambition to be a magazine features writer, and after 2012 I tried to lay the groundwork of doing features, about politics but also about other things. …

“After spending a year at GQ covering the campaign — I had gone there with the idea that I was going to be a daily blogger on the campaign trail and also write these great longform features. And guess what? It’s really hard to blog every day, and also write longform features. So at the end of the year I was sort of looking I was like, ‘Well this was great, but I didn’t write anything that was like a classic magazine feature.’ I freelanced for about eight months and I just use that time to really establish myself as someone who could do the features because, for one, I wanted to know that I could do it. But I also wanted to say to other people, ‘Here’s the kind of writer I am.‘”

-On my latest episode of the Kill Fee podcast (iTunes), I spoke with journalist Marin Cogan about her early career, and how she navigates the world of politics, sports, and beyond.

from Longreads

Behind the ‘Literary Brat Pack’ Label

At Harper’s Bazaar, Jason Diamond offers a look back at the “literary brat pack–Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Tama Janowitz and a group of other writers in the 1980s as famous for their coke-fueled late nights at the Odeon as they were for publishing celebrated novels before the age of thirty. In his research and conversations with some of the authors, Diamond learns that the group’s label was to some degree just that–a catchall that gave the false illusion that they were part of a cohesive movement, and all tight with one another.

McInerney and Ellis were friends whose books you could conceivably connect because of their themes and flat tones. Janowitz, for all intents and purposes, was thrown into the brat pack mix because it was convenient. “I really can count on one hand the number of dinners I actually had with her,” Ellis recalls of Janowitz. They weren’t friends, but the newspapers and magazines made it seem like they were. The new guard, seemingly looking for media attention, not being very writerly. “I didn’t know those guys,” Janowitz says echoing Ellis. “We would bump into each other at various things we had been invited to, but it was like creating a movement, as if somehow we had been hanging out together beforehand.”

Yet when her 1986 short story collection, Slaves of New York, was published, McInerney, the reigning king of downtown fiction, was tasked with reviewing the book. “As a writer, it is possible to be too hip,” he wrote in a lukewarm review. The next day, Janowitz was featured on the cover of New York, standing in a meat locker and looking like a goth queen, in a black dress with skull earrings. “A female Jay McInerney?” reads the caption in a photo for the accompanying story.

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Moment Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ Changed Course

KAHANE CORN COOPERMAN(field producer, later co-executive producer, 1996-2015):

I produced a field piece, with Stacey Grenrock Woods as the correspondent, about a guy, Alexander P., who had been a rock star in Ukraine and came here and was now a waiter in a hotel restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This piece may well have been in the works before Jon arrived. But it airs, and after the show you have a postmortem. And Jon was not happy. He said, “Your targets are just wrong. They shouldn’t be people on the fringe. Our targets need to be the people who have a voice, and that’s politicians, and that’s the media.”

STACEY GRENROCK WOODS(correspondent, 1998-2003):

I heard Jon was very unhappy with that piece, and I don’t blame him at all. I didn’t like it, either, but it was given to me. I think it ended up being a policy-changing piece.

-From a new oral history of The Daily Show, by Chris Smith, excerpted in Vanity Fair.

from Longreads