Sunday, June 14, 2015

Freddy Cole to Swing at Shannon Hall

by Susan Kepecs
Freddy Cole headlines the Isthmus Jazz Festival this coming weekend, with a ticketed concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall at 8 PM on Saturday, June 20.  The octagenarian (to be precise he’s 83), with some 30 albums under his belt, is a master of old-school swing and soft pop.  He’s also the younger brother of Nat King Cole, who peaked in the 1940s and died of lung cancer in 1965, at the age of 45.  Chromosomes aren’t everything, but you can’t help picking up on the genetic connection that links the two.  It echoes incontrovertably through their vocal inflections, spare piano styles, and song choices.  But Nat King Cole was slinkier, poppier, much more of a showman; Freddy Cole’s approach is supremely understated, and his tone’s edged with the sentiments of saudade – melancholy – that infuse the musical culture of a country he loves, Brazil.  And even though both siblings grew up in the Windy City, and there’s a park there posthumously named for Nat King Cole, Freddy Cole’s approach is a little grittier, a smidge more Chicago than his brother’s. 
The younger Cole’s been recording since the early ‘50s, but his career’s forever been overshadowed by his brother’s.  In the ‘70s he came into his own in Europe and his beloved Brazil, but he was barely known in the States till the ‘90s.  You gotta empathize with the endless comparisons – though he’s absolutely an artist in his own right, he’s perpetually been presented as Nat King Cole’s younger sib.  As he told a Jet reporter way back in 1978, “being the brother of one of the greatest persons who ever lived is not the problem ... the problem is the public’s.”
Cole himself never fails to acknowledge his brother, though it’s obviously a double-edged sword.  A 1990 recording re-released in 2004 on HighNote, I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me, is a case in point.  On the album’s eponymously titled track – a straight-up Chicago blues – the lyrics go “I’m not tryin’ to fill anyone’s shoes.  My brother made a lotta money, I sing the blues.”  But there’s also a ten-minute Nat King Cole medley on that record, showcasing the more famous Cole’s best-known tunes.
Last week I reached Cole on the phone in Manhattan, where he was on tour.  He was gracious, but – understandably – guarded. I tried to ask the kind of open-ended questions that have the potential to bring out full-fledged life stories (as in my interview with Poncho Sanchez last month), but Cole wasn’t in a storytelling mood.

CulturalOyster: You were born and raised in Chicago, and there’s quite a bit of Chicago in your sound – how did that city shape you as a musician?

Cole: Well, it’s very difficult to say any one place shaped me.  I’ve learned what I’ve learned over the hears here, there and everywhere – Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh – I’ve been all over the country.

CulturalOyster: There’s also that wonderfully subtle Brazilian influence.  I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Brazil.  But what I hear in your music is more saudade than bossa – how did that come about?

Cole: I couldn’t have said it any better – yes, there’s saudade.  Brazilian music is the second most popular music in the world, aside from American music.  I like Latin music. 

CulturalOyster: You’ve worked with players who come from Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican traditions, like Papo Vásquez and Arturo O’Farrill [both play on Cole’s 2001 Telarc album, Rio de Janeiro Blue] – have you been bitten by the son y rumba and bomba bugs?

Cole: I’ll try anything at least once – but no, not really.  I’ve spent a lot of time in Brazil.  I love the music and the people, and the food – all you gotta do is look at my gut to know that!

CulturalOyster: I’d really like to do this interview without bringing up the brother thing....

Cole: Well, don’t bring it up then!

CulturalOyster: Your repertory has a lot of range – American Songbook to Stevie Wonder.  Do you have a favorite style?  A favorite song? 

Cole: If it’s a favorite I do it all the time, so I don’t even look at it that way.  I just try to make it as good as possible – to make a great presentation – and that’s it.  Every song is my favorite.  I don’t do anything I don’t like.  But “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is a song that’s always stuck with me, though I don’t know what I’ll be playing in your town yet.  I don’t think about it till I go out on the bandstand.  Most times it’s a mood that strikes me, that and audience response.

CulturalOyster: Who are your sidemen on this tour?

Cole: Elias Bailey on bass, Quentin Baxter on drums, Chris Christy is the guitarist.  Bailey’s been with me quite a while.  Chris comes in and subs for Randy Napoleon, my regular guitarist, who has classes to teach at Michigan State, so he couldn’t make it – but Chris is a good player.  Baxter is from Charlston [North Carolina].  He’s a great drummer.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Promega's Summer Art Showcase, "Wall Bound," Abounds with Chican@ Art

Guerrero (L) and Moreno, working on the Promega mural
all photos © SKepecs 2015
by Susan Kepecs
Wall Bound – the 2015 Promega summer art showase – is a generous, cross-generational look at Chican@ / Latin@ art in the second decade of the new century.  It opens this Tuesday, June 9, at the global biotech corporation’s biopharmaceutical technology center, 5445 East Cheryl Parkway in Fitchburg.  Events include a symposium at 3:30 and a reception for the artists from 4:30 to 6:30, with music by Madison’s favorite latin jazz conguero, Tony Castañeda, and internationally renowned sculptor, maskmaker and performance artist Zarco Guerrero.  I know, I’m posting this really late – by the time you read it the festivities will probably be over.  But don’t let that stop you from seeing the show, which features works by ten (eleven?) artists and is beautifully curated by Marco Albarran, executive director of CALACA Cultural Center in Tempe, AZ and produced by art consultant Daniel Swadener, who develops and curates all of Promega’s art exhibits.  It’s up through Sept. 7.
Wall Bound is rooted in Chican@ muralism, which, in its way, is performance art (yes, hence it’s appropriateness for my blog).  You know what I mean – artists, with and sometimes without formal training, interacting in the creative process, in a public setting.  
The creative process, says Swadener, is the essence of Promega’s attitude toward science.  “The arts program at Promega – it’s been going for 20 years – is part of the company’s promotion of creativity.  Creativity is a business model.  We don’t separate the arts from the sciences – scientists can’t make new discoveries without the creative process.  The art shows don’t just exhibit creativity, they’re who we are.  In general, in society we’ve separated art and science.  But as an evolution of what we do at Promega, we’ve put them back together – you can’t have one without the other.  People ask questions about the dollar amount – what the economic impact of the arts is [on the business].  But since we don’t make that separation we can’t even answer. 
The works in Wall Bound aren’t actually painted on the walls – the show consists of several portable works by each artist, plus a brand-new canvas mural created at Promega, planned, and painted by Guerrero and award-winning arts educator and community artist Martín Moreno, with a lot of help from participating Promega employees.  The mural, unlike the individual works, will stay at Promega permanently.  “It’s one way to make the exhibit proactive,” Swadener says.  “The Promega employees own it ‘cause they’ve put their sweat into it.  We’ve brought some pretty talented people here, so let’s have some interactions.”

Sunday afternoon I had a chance to talk with Moreno and Guerrero while they were working on the mural with a couple of Promega people.  The whole process only began on Friday, but the huge canvas was already looking lush.
“The hummingbirds in the mural represent Huitzilipochtli, the Aztec god of war,” Moreno says.  “But it's symbolic, more like a poetic reference to this messenger spirit that would take the fallen warrior to the next world.  It’s all very poetic, you can’t take it literally.  And I utilize purple mountains a lot.  It’s based on two things.  A lot of people think ‘purple mountains’ majesty,’ and I let ‘em think that.  But actually it’s based on the bruises we’ve left on Pachamama, Mother Earth.  If you say that, people don’t get it.  If you let ‘em think what they want you can get away with so much more.”
“Some things are better left unsaid,” Guerrero adds.  “I’m still learning that at my age.”
The content of the mural, Guerrero continues, came out of a discussion with Stephanie Shea, Promega’s communications coordinator.  “She liked the idea of cellular art – cells dividing and growing.  So we said let’s throw in some plants, and some cells dividing.  That’s a lot of lines and circles, which helps us assign people [the Promega participants] tasks. For me the design’s very Mesoamerican, or Aztec – the circle in the middle is a symbol of duality and movement, male / female, positive / negative.  It’s very simple, very elemental – and it looks like the design is working, because we might finish on time, which is major; of course we wish we had two weeks to do it so we could take our time.  We’re not as concerned with the outcome here as we are with the process, ‘cause our time and space are so limited and the talent base is so broad.  But I see it as a process of choreographing people to participate.”
“This is what we do,” Moreno adds.  “We specialize in community organization, in giving the community a voice.  We’ve both done that most of our professional lives – sharing our culture and history, and empowering the community.  We’ve both worked all over the country, and we know what the potential is.  This particular mural is Promega’s way of involving its family in the process – it’s about sharing the idea of community arts.  We’ve had maybe 16, 17 volunteers come in and work with us over the span of a couple of days.  That means something.  We try to give each one the experience of participation – and painting is fun!  It’s a pleasure, and one that a lot of times people don’t get an opportunity to try.”

"Muchacha Maya" Cristina Cardenas
"Mano por Centavo" (Border Milagro)
Alfred Quiroz 
The rest of the exhibit is grittier, zeroing in on the core of the Chican@ mural movement.  The subject matter of this art (it’s mostly paintings, but there’s some three dimensional work, too) is identidad – mexicanidad in the US, whether or not it’s overtly embedded in political-economic context. “It’s important that people come see the work,” Moreno says.  “The exhibit is very strong and it represents different styles, from the masters, the veterans, to the young artists.  Just to mention a few of them, one of the cats with us is Alfred Quiroz, he’s a professor of art at the University of Arizona. He’s 70 years old or more.  He’s doing the same thing we’re doing, but his work is satirical so it’s a completely different approach to art.  Cristina Cardenas is in the show, she’s not Chicana, she’s Mexican, but she has no choice but to be involved in what we’re doing ‘cause she’s been here so long.  Her work isn’t openly political, but she’s nonetheless very gifted.  Valerie Aranda is represented here, I was her mentor and now she’s a professor at Georgia College & State University.”
Frida mask, Zarco Guerrero
In the show, Moreno is represented by about a half-dozen paintings; Guerrero contributes at least that many of his masks. That said, I think all of the artists in the exhibit also have been involved in the mural movement.  How did Moreno and Guerrero get started in that pursuit? 
“I was born in Michigan,” says Moreno, who’s 64.  “I was exposed at an early age to Diego [Rivera]’s murals at the Detroit Institute of Art.  This was when I was a kid, so I didn’t really understand it.  My background is migrant – my mother was a migrant worker.  She instilled in me the belief that if you could see it in your mind’s eye you could create it.  So I started drawing and kept doing it.  She died when I was 16, but when I was 17 I went to Mexico and saw more of the muralistas – Rivera, Orozco, Siquieros.  I fell in love with it, right?  I flew back to Michigan and went to college.  I got my art degree when I was 19 or 20 and I’ve been doing public art ever since.  I come from the barrio.  Public art is a way of giving your community ownership.  So I started the Community Action Arts Center in my home town, Adrian, MI.  That’s when the CETA Program [the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a Nixon-initiated WPA-style undertaking with a neighborhood arts component] was hot.  CETA gave birth to many nonprofit arts organizations, all over the country.
"SB1070" Martín Moreno
“The work we were doing was socially relevant and dealt with social issues.  One of the things we demanded was quality.  I thought if you put your stuff out there it’s gotta be the best ‘cause you don’t get a second shot.  So you demand this quality of work from everyone who participates.  That passes down to the students you work with.  If they’re taught properly they’ll perpetuate the philosophy.  That’s worked for over 40 years, so we must be doing something right!  We’re still here, perpetuating the philosophy.” 
“We’re still havin’ fun, we’re still the one,” Guerrero sings, cutting in. “I had aspirations to be an artist all my young life,” the 63-year old adds.  My father was a portrait painter.  He taught classes in Mesa, AZ.  So mostly I grew up watching him paint and had aspirations to be a painter like him.  But then the civil rights movement came out, and the César Chávez thing.  A lot of artists in my generation gravitated toward that. Chávez was all about service, and he he called on us, as artists, to serve our communities with our art.  So we took his cue.  And we shared images, borrowed images, went to Mexico and discovered the muralists – not only the style but the philosophy as well – art for and by the people.”

The great twentieth century Mexican muralists, supported by the government in the reconstruction years following the decade of war (1910-1920) that was the Revolution, were charged with creating a public artform that broadcast the new Mexican identity and upheld the populist aims of the new constitution.  Chican@ muralism shares the identity-driven, populist goals of its south-of-the-border sister, but it’s up against a whole different kind of political system.  “The whole Chican@ movement’s a protest against the status quo,” says Moreno.  “It’s the cultural warrior thing.  If the artist doesn’t make a statement, who’s gonna make it?  That creative freedom and right is also a responsibility to point the finger when necessary.  We can do that in the name of art and get away with it – but to understand that you have the ability to make change is a very important, very big thing.
            “It’s hard to create public art and to have a political or social message without offending some people.  It’s a real fine line that we have to walk.  Some of the aerosol artists, the taggers, don’t care about longevity for their work.  Their approach at least initially is very self-oriented.  The more dangerous the setting the more your reputation grows, and the bolder you become.  A lot of cats out there just get off on that – it’s an adrenaline thing – but a lot of the artists we’ve mentored started out that way but have become cultural warriors.”   
How can Chican@ culture warriors survive when the current rich white right wing thinks Mexicans are more dangerous than ISIS?  “I’ve experienced a major renaissance in public Chican@a art three times in my life,” Moreno says.  “First it was the CETA program.  That died, but then there were other government programs – youth employment programs.  That’s happened twice, but both of those were cut back by conservative Republican leadership, so it’s always a matter of reinventing the wheel.”
 “We keep losing funding, but we never stop working,” Guerrero adds.  “There’s a lot less money now, but the momentum hasn’t stopped.”
“Money isn’t why we do it,” Moreno says.  “It’s nice to be paid for what you’re capable of doing, but we all give, any time there’s a cause.  We’re always asked to donate artwork – not just us, but most artists.  I doubt that will ever change.  But even in hard times there are people out there who understand and support our artwork, and our history.”
"Con Rayos y Centellas" Marco Albarran