Michigan “American Sniper” controversy is about taste, not freedom

A headline writer at Brown’s newspaper needs a lesson in reading comprehension. Either that, or he/she figured “Universities shouldn’t speak freely” would be a nice clickbait headline for a nuanced piece on Michigan’s decision to show, then not show, then show (off to the side) American Sniper at a campus social function.

rageaholThis sentence didn’t help: “But really, canceling the movie is perfectly consistent with freedom of expression, and showing the movie is what contradicts freedom of expression.”

But in context, it’s easy to see what he means. Students used their freedom of expression to say, “Hey, this is our party, and we don’t want to see a freaking WAR MOVIE that isn’t particularly comfortable viewing, especially for the thriving Arab and Muslim communities on campus!” That’s their right.

He was on much stronger ground here:

“It’s a complete mystery why the university thought it was a good idea to begin with to show the movie at a Friday night event designed to provide alcohol-free fun, entertainment and socializing.”

The right-wing outrage machine will surely try to make a big issue of this. But it’s not about censorship or freedom. It’s about having really bad taste in party planning.

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Our job: BS detectors

Yet another ethical issue: How to report on popular purveyors of scientific nonsense without ended up giving them even more exposure — that is, spreading the disease of misinformation in the process of trying to wipe it out.

Reporting on quacks and pseudoscience: The problem for journalists – LA Times.

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Does a TV series have to last to be successful?

For once, I agree with the critics. The Last Man on Earth was terrific for its first couple of episodes and then quickly went off a cliff.

Just when it became too much for Will Forte to do on his own, they brought in one of my favorite people in entertainment, Kristen Schaal. Their characters’ different approaches to civilization’s collapse brought some great comic moments.

The first half-hour asked and answered the question “How would you make the most of things if everyone else was gone?” Then with Schaal on board, it asked how you would make the most of things if the one other person drove you crazy.

Then … let’s let Salon’s Anna Silman sum it up:

It’s disappointing to see how fast the show has veered away from its adventurous beginnings into predictable sitcom plot-lines and stereotypes. When the cast was still only Phil and Carol, their odd-couple banter felt fresh, and I looked forward to following them on their bizarro Adam and Eve-like quest for repopulation. But with the arrival of January Jones’ Melissa in episode three, and the formation of a plot based purely on the old-school love triangle, much of the show’s early promise seems to have been jettisoned in favor of a far less exciting approach.

AV Club’s Caroline Framke had similar disappointment. She liked the possibility of January Jones being the rational one between Forte and Schaal’s extremes, but the whole “I’d rather be having sex with the other one” plot is as hackneyed and tedious as it gets.

Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan didn’t even like Schaal’s introduction because her character was such a female stereotype. It’s a valid complaint, but I thought Schaal did such a nice job taking her character beyond stereotypes into lunacy — as she does in her standup comedy and her voice work on Gravity Falls and Bob’s Burgers — that she overcame most of the underlying sexism. She even brought a bit of dignity to the role, demanding and getting respect.

Here’s another way Last Man on Earth could have played out …

Forte and Schaal struggle for another 4-5 episodes, gradually making progress restoring basic comforts (plumbing, for one) and getting along with each other, even falling in love. They even restore power, get on the Internet and find … New Zealand survived the virus. They make contact and prepare to pack for New Zealand, only to find that a bunch of New Zealanders want to come over and live in Tucson. Forte and Schaal look out over their newly populated town with satisfaction.

End of series.

All told, maybe it’s 12 episodes. And that’s OK.

Continuing indefinitely is generally an American thing. Many of the classic British shows — Fawlty Towers, The Office, The Young Ones — only produced 12 episodes. In those cases, it’s regrettable. Surely The Young Ones could’ve gone on a bit longer. I was still holding out hope for a revival, akin to the periodic Absolutely Fabulous six-episode spurts, until Rik Mayall died. The Old Ones would’ve been terrific.

Not here. Shows continue until the ratings slide or everyone in the cast finally decides to move on after devoting most of their careers to a single role.

That brings me to The Blacklist.

It’s a terrific show. I could watch James Spader’s inspired Raymond Reddington character all day. But it’s wearing thin.

How many times can we have characters reach the brink of learning the mysteries surrounding them, only to back away? How long can Liz continue to deal with Red’s refusal to pull back the curtain and explain, at least partially, what this is all about?

The Blacklist should either run for about 50 episodes total or come up with some sort of extra level of mystery to make it worthwhile. The former might be more palatable.

So it’s a puzzler. Why must open-ended Britcoms leave us so soon while American shows drag out limited premises for so long? Why did Lost continue for so many seasons, only to conclude with, “Uh, yeah, it’s some sort of purgatory”?

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Jon Stewart: The last journalist?

At Popdose, Dw. Dunphy uses the Daily Show transition as a launching point for a sharp critique of the profit-driven cowardly news media, obsessed with landing big interviews rather than doing anything constructive with them:

In the messed-up, funhouse world of news transmission, the worst thought is that the true news companies are so compromised in their existence that they can no longer actually do the job as it needs to be done. They produce celebrities now; not any grizzled Edward R. Murrow types, if I may momentarily romanticize things. Stewart was as close as we had to that level of unchained reportage. I hope Trevor Noah will not fall back but will instead charge harder. If not, there’s not much left to count on, other than softballs, a swing, and a miss.

via “The Big Get” And The Jon Stewart Loss.

I still hope Jon Stewart is able to get another interview with John McCain before he departs.

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Is Washington Post going Twitter teenagers on us?

This attempt by Petula Dvorak to pull together random bad things that happened at UVA into some sort of grand statement — with or without tongue in cheek — is one of the most reprehensible things I’ve ever seen under the Post’s banner:

Is U-Va. going Bravo Network on us? – The Washington Post.

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Paul Jeffrey, Duke jazzman

I was in over my head. I knew it, and so did the man sitting across the desk from me.

He was a legitimate jazz man who ran in the same circles as Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. I was a 17-year-old kid from a lily-white private school whose “jazz band” started with two teachers and two students playing nothing that sounded like jazz. We were popular, at least, because we debuted by stretching the Hawaii Five-O theme with so many self-indulgent solos that the assembly ran long and several tests scheduled for the next period had to be rescheduled. All I really knew of jazz was what I’d read in Musician magazine, which had encouraged me to pick up a couple of cassettes by Miles Davis and various Marsalis brothers.

In that high school “jazz” group, being a jack of all trades and master of none was fine. I’d quickly gathered that the Duke Jazz Ensemble was a little different.

But he humored me as I worked my way through several instruments. I was a competent classical piano player who could get through some complex arrangements of Rush songs. I was competent on clarinet, which I would later play in marching band, though it’s strange that he let me audition on an instrument that they didn’t really use in the jazz ensemble. I could play Stand By Me and a few other tunes on bass, though I’d never been trained in doing the “walking bass” so essential to a jazz ensemble. He got a good laugh out of my drum set audition.

As intimidating as he was, a compliment from him went a long way. Two of us auditioned on guitar, and he tested our ears by playing a note on piano and asking us to match it. The first kid had no clue. I had built up a decent relative pitch — something that would help me boost my GPA in music classes — by figuring out rock riffs on my guitar, so once I found the first note he played, I was able to follow him with no trouble. He tried to trick me with a tritone that went nowhere near the key in which he was playing, but I got it right away.

He nodded. “You have a good ear,” he said.

My audition also led to one of those freak coincidences that changed my college years. I needed to find a string bass on which to audition, and I asked an older gentleman in the equipment room for help. “Oh, you play bass?” he asked? That man was Paul Bryan, who had led the Duke Wind Symphony for decades and was getting ready to take most of the group on one last semester-long trip to Vienna. He also liked having string bass in the Wind Symphony, as counterintuitive as that sounds. No, I didn’t go to Vienna, but the man they called “PB” recruited me to play in the “scab” Wind Symphony that stayed home, and I stuck around to play seven of my eight semesters. The conductors who replaced PB — who still sometimes plays with the group at the age of 95 — decided they needed a percussionist more than they needed a bass player, so I switched instruments.

Back in jazz ensemble, things weren’t going well. Somehow, we settled on having me play bass clarinet, on which I would play tenor sax parts. I simply couldn’t keep up — at times, I was playing every other phrase and letting my section-mates handle the rest. A lot of the time, I just hoped Jeffrey couldn’t hear me.

He was a unique conductor. He tucked his arms in close to his body and flapped his hands in 4/4 time like a bird making a really weak effort to fly. If the tune was in 5/4, he’d add a little beat as his hands swung out. And if we sounded horrible, he’d let us know — he’d remind us how long he spent writing out the charts for us to play and tell us he needed a few shots after our last rehearsal.

Before one concert, a pad fell off the bass clarinet. He growled and offered little help in fixing it, so I just went back to my dorm and missed it.

That wouldn’t be the last I saw or heard of Paul Jeffrey, though. We overlapped in another of the activities I sought out upon arrival at Duke, DJing at the campus radio station. I went through DJ training, where the one thing they emphasized was that we should never leave “dead air” — you play a song, you speak as soon as it’s finished, and you speak until you play the next song.

Paul Jeffrey had a different approach:

(song ends … silence … a few more seconds …)

That was ……. Impressions …… by John Coltrane …………….. from North Carolina …… Coltrane ……………….. he’s from North Carolina ………… and that was ………………….. Impressions.

I actually thought his show was more interesting than the rest.

My extracurriculars changed after that first semester. I never got called to take a DJ shift at WXDU for some reason. Nor did the people at Cable 13 ever get back to me. I joined the marching band my sophomore year, though I ran out of time to stick with it the next year. I stayed with the wind symphony until my last semester.

And after that first semester, I walked away from the jazz ensemble and walked into the office at The Chronicle, where it’s no exaggeration to say my life changed — I found friends, memories and a career.

The paper needed more arts coverage, and so I wound up frequently calling on Paul Jeffrey, often with a bit of trepidation. Big things were happening with jazz at Duke — the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was coming to Durham and would be affiliated with the school. I wound up in Jeffrey’s office on the phone with people who were setting up the institute, and he growled at me once when I asked someone to tell me about the interest in the project outside Durham. I insisted I was trying to get across to the Duke audience how big this really was; he wanted to get across to me that the South was jazz’s heart and soul, a point re-emphasized when I wound up on the phone listening to Thelonious Monk Jr. for about 30 minutes, trying to scribble down quotes as he went through an enthusiastic monologue about jazz and the South.

This was the big time. I wound up standing on a stage trying to do interviews and getting elbowed aside by photographers getting pictures of Clint Eastwood, who had come to Duke along with Steve Allen and Clark Terry to kick-start the institute.

I crossed paths a few other times with Jeffrey due to scheduling conflicts back in the days before the music department figured out how to avoid such problems. I wound up playing in pit orchestras for the stage musical group Hoof n Horn, where my “jack of all trades, master of none” traits were put to good use. I played woodwinds in one show, drums in a couple of others, and bass in a couple more. One day after exams and before our Graduation Weekend shows, I went to the equipment room at Duke to find that Jeffrey had taken all of the string basses — some Italian jazz buddies were in town, and it was his right to take them. I wound up playing bass parts on a keyboard for the final shows.

My senior percussion recital was scheduled a few hours before a jazz performance in Baldwin Auditorium. I walked in before my performance to find my equipment shoved to the side, with the stage set up for the jazz show. I managed to get my stuff up to the front of the stage to play. After my recital, which went surprisingly well despite the vibraphone falling over, I recruited audience members to help me reset the stage. “We don’t want to make Paul Jeffrey mad,” I said.

But Jeffrey’s honesty meant his compliments and his willingness to help out were sincere. If I needed to get in touch with someone, he’d help me track that person down. One day at The Chronicle, I called Jeffrey to ask something for the next story on the institute, just a couple of days after my last one. “I read your story,” he said. “You’re a good writer.”

To this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder to hear that.

I saw Paul Jeffrey at least once in the year after graduation. I was bouncing up to The Chronicle office, having not yet cut the cord from the group I considered family. He was probably headed to Page Auditorium next door. He smiled and greeted me warmly, and we chatted for a few minutes about the arts at Duke. I think he and I recognized that we shared a passion for the subject, even if our experiences differed greatly.

The Thelonious Monk Institute never got off the ground in Durham for some reason. But Jeffrey stuck around Duke for a couple of decades, leading the jazz ensemble and teaching a jazz history course that was well-known for being one of the easier classes at Duke. He didn’t care about that rep, he’d say, as long as kids were listening to the music.

Listening to the music was what mattered.

Paul Jeffrey passed away on Friday at age 81. And while I never became a great jazz musician or even a great jazz writer, I’m glad I listened to him. I’m sure thousands of Duke alumni feel the same way.

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How to name a bass player

One little cottage industry on YouTube is the phenomenon of “covers.” Instead of a full band playing a cover version of a song, it’s usually a drummer, guitarist or bassist playing along with a favored track.

One star in this industry, frequently getting more than 1 million page views per upload, is a young Catalan bass player living in London named Marta Altesa. She’s adorable, smiling and singing along with the tracks she’s playing, and she can flat-out play.

So I decided to check out bass covers of Uptown Funk, and the best one I saw was this Dutch kid who starts out looking like he’s completely full of himself, unbuttoning a couple of buttons of his silky shirt before the bass kicks in. But he can also flat-out play, adding a couple of funky flourishes. OK, dude — you play like that, you’ve earned the right to wear your shirt however you like.

His name? Mart.

Clearly, I should’ve named one of my kids Martin.

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