Catching up with Ahmad

Ahmad Jamal comes to the desert.

I never thought it would happen, but last Friday night in Phoenix I attended a performance by Ahmad Jamal, the great jazz pianist.

Ahmad and I go back a long way, though he does not know it.  He was my introduction to jazz music back in 1958.  I was going to military school in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, at the time.  The guy who bunked above me, a handsome Italian from Chicago, was a jazz buff.  Among the many albums he played in the evening was one by Jamal, the title I no longer remember.  I ended up buying a Jamal album of my own, a live recording, I believe, from the Pershing Hotel in Chicago.

The years passed, and my music taste shifted into soul and Mo-Town.  To my discredit, jazz took a back seat.  Still, I occasionally thought of Jamal, always in a good way, and then I lost track of him until about two weeks ago.  That’s when I was startled to see an ad in the local newspaper saying he was coming to town.  I had thought he was probably dead by now.  Or at least retired.  He had to be in his 80s.  I snapped up a couple of $40 tickets to the 9 o’clock performance.  The 7 o’clock was sold out.

The performance took place at the lavish Musical Instrument Museum, the MIM, in the far north part of town.  As we walked in from the parking lot, a middle-aged woman coming out said to Nebra and I, “You’re going to love it.”   And she was right.

Jamal is 81 now, his beard entirely gray, and he shuffles along on stiffening legs.  “I have a good memory, but it’s short,” he joked, sorting some notes in his hand.

But once Jamal sits down and touches the keyboard, you realize those hands, that musical mind, remain youthful.   Even if you’re not a great fan of jazz, you recognize immediately the dexterity and the command of the man’s music and admire it.  It’s a cool form of jazz, classical you might say.  Very little ad lib, honky-tonk comment goes on as the quartet plays, and I’ve come to like it like that.

The quartet played for an hour and 15 minutes and received a standing ovation at the end from the 150 or so in the auditorium.  And in turn Jamal played a short medley for an encore, and them ambled off the stage following bassist James Cammack, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena, marvelously talented men in their own field.

In my time, I have seen performances by some of music’s greats.  Elvis, Johnny Cash in Las Vegas, Van Morrison in his native Ireland.  I rank the Jamal concert right up there with them.

Autumnal equinox 2011, Phoenix

Jupiter traveling over Phoenix at the precise moment of equinox.

The autumnal equinox occurred at 2:04 a.m.  The skies in Phoenix, Arizona, were clear, the wind calm and the temperature 80 F.  after a high yesterday of 106.  The night sky is moonless, a dome of artificial light rises from the highrise buildings a mile to the south.  The brightest object above is Jupiter which has reached near zenith at the moment of equinox.

The equinox marks the moment the sun’s path crosses the equator of our tilting Earth.  In this case, the sun’s path is south, bringing spring to the southern hemisphere and autumn to the north where Phoenix is located.  It will be another three months, sometime in late December, before the sun’s path will begin to steer north again.  It has been a hot, dry year with record high temperatures in August.  Like much of the Southwest, huge wildfires burned thousands of acres during the summer.  This has been happening for a long time now.

Was there ever a doubt?

As this long season wore on, many fans of Arizona’s voodoo professional baseball team started to joke about the improbable victories their Diamondbacks began to ring up.  One triumph after another, coming from behind, often winning with dramatic home runs in the late innings, many of them by the franchise’s lesser lights, some of them long gone back to the minors or traded away. 

It has become second nature out here in the arid lands to not only think the Dbacks can rally late, it is expected.  Down three runs in the eighth?  No sweat, man. It’s in the bag.   

To cement the point, it happened again today in San Francisco in the rubber game against the Giants, the only viable competition left for stopping the Dbacks steamroller to a National League West pennant.  Not only was it the rubber game of a 3-game series, but it was one of the most important games of the season for both teams.

Lose and the Giants would trail by a manageable 5 games with 22 remaining.  Win and, for all practical purposes, the Dbacks would be up by 7 and pretty much put the Giants in their rearview.  Win and play .500 baseball the rest of the way would force the Giants to go 18-4 just to tie. 

So there they were, the Dbacks, down 1-0 in the 8th with one out and their star right fielder, Justin Upton, already in the lockerroom after being ejected.  And third baseman Ryan Roberts at the bat.  Talk about the improbable, that’s Roberts, aka the Tatman for all of his ungodly tattoos.  He was cut late in spring training and sent down to Triple-A Reno.  But when he was recalled to the Big Team, he suddenly became Superman and, really, the outward symbol of the unsuspecting Godzilla the Dbacks have become this season.

So, anyway, the Tatman blasts a home run off Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong to tie the game at 1.   Ho-hum.  A single and a walk brings to bat one Willie Bloomquist, a 33-year-old role player who was forced into the lineup when shortstop Stephen Drew pulled up lame more than a month ago.  Bloomquist who said after the game, “I haven’t been swinging the bat that great,” smashed a triple down the right field line to break open the game.  Ho-hum again.  The Dbacks ended up with a 4-1 victory and a secure hold on first place.

It is an amazing story. 

In 2010, the Dbacks sported the third worst record in baseball, 65-97.   They finished 27 games behind the Giants, who went on to win the World Series.  Now, they are 20 games above .500 at 80-60.  That’s a turn-around of 52 games in one season.

How it did it happen, outside of the fact the NL West is probably the worst division in Major League Baseball?  In two words.  Kevin Towers, the General Manager.  The owners who have thin billfolds, gussied up the nerve to hire a real baseball man in Towers, if only for two years, after the previous GM, Josh Byrnes, made the franchise a train wreck and a joke to serious observers.  Byrnes burned up all the minor-league talent and traded away some of its most talented players for a song (think Carols Quentin of the White Sox, Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies and ace closer  Jose Val Verde) in mostly crazy trades and named a neophyte, A. J. Hinch, as manager.  To their credit, the owners fired both Byrnes and Hinch in the middle of last season.

Towers did two smart things almost immediately.  He placed an emphasis on pitching, trading away in the process the popular whiff king, third baseman Mark Reynolds, and hired a focused, hard-nosed manager, Kirk Gibson.  Not only that but Towers allowed Gibson to recruit what is arguably the best and perhaps most expensive coaching staff in the game:  Don Baylor (hitting),  Alan Trammell (bench) and Charles Nagy (pitching). 

And although the voodoo hitting has been right out of fantasyland, the pitching has been the key.  No one has been more important to the team than ace Ian Kennedy, now 18-4, with a decent shot to win the Cy Young award.  And right behind is hard-throwing Daniel Hudson.  The two could each win 20 games this season.  The other starters have proven solid and closer J. J. Putz has become almost a sure-thing.   In toto, things moved ahead a lot faster than anyone thought.

Naysayers thought the Dbacks were fried on July 20 when Drew suffered a compound fracture of his right leg sliding into home.  But, in fact, the team has played better without him, going 28-14 since then.  They actually trailed the Giants at the time by 4 1/2 games.

I’ve written it once and I’ll write in one more time.  This is not a baseball team, it’s a religious cult.  This team believes and if there is a difference between being a mediocre team and a good one, then it’s that, pure and simple.

The funny thing too is that with their nifty pitching staff and off days due to travel, the Dbacks could go a long way in the playoffs.  Maybe even as far as the Giants did last year.  And to think the current edition Dbacks have only one player, Upton, who could clearly start for the 2001 World Series-champion Dbacks.  And Kennedy and Hudson would have to take back seats to the champs’ Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.  It doesn’t add up, yet . . . .

If someone doesn’t create a mocking T-shirt saying, “Was there ever a doubt?” then that someone is missing the financial boat.

`Let Freedom Ring:’ Driving down the road to ruin

I am driving through a construction zone on Interstate 40 west of Kingman, Arizona, and am reminded of the lead-in song to the Sean Hannity radio show, “Let Freedom Ring.” 

Hannity uses the song to attract the naive grassroots elements in America.  “Let Freedom Ring.”  That’s something everyone can believe in, right?   But the sneaky Hannity is not really interested in grassroots America except for the fact grassroots America can vote and easily be steered to adopt his conservative causes.

No, Hannity’s “Let Freedom Ring” is more about de-regulating Big Business, the giant corporations that pay his salary, those giant corporations that have sent jobs overseas and who want to enslave the American worker in a capsule of poor wages and no benefits.  All while those free and unregulated corporations are piling up huge profits, paying themselves extraordinary bonuses and lobbying Congress for tax breaks.  Tax breaks, that is, for corporations that have not yet developed magical accounting methods to pay no taxes at all.  Like General Electric.

So there I am tooling down I-40 amid road work as the numbers on speed limit signs decrease from the standard 75 mph to 45. 

I am following a silver pickup which is also obeying the law.   In Arizona, there is also a law that allows for double fines for speeding in a construction zone.  And yet, zooming around our two vehicles is a steady swoosh of “violators,” some of whom I estimate are going 60, even as a sign shows the road merging ahead into one lane from two.

The speeders, in my mind, are like the corporations in this country who flaunt the law.  And why do they speed?  Because they know there is no enforcement, that their chances of getting caught are next to nil.   It is only when they see flashing red lights ahead do the speeders begin to let up on the accelerator.   And once the red is out of sight, it’s step on the gas again. 

When at last we pass two Highway Patrol cars with red lights ablaze, we see they are not manned at all.  They are just setting there as reminders of what a toothless law says.  In essence the empty patrol cars are saying, “We’re not going to stop you.  This is just a warning to cover our asses.”  

I liken the empty Highway Patrol cars to the SEC, the Securities Exchange Commission that turned its head on regulating the big banks that brought on the recent financial crisis.  Let freedom ring, baby.

So, I say to Hannity, you’re right, we don’t need more laws placed on businesses.  What we need is a government that has the guts to enforce regulations already on the books.  A government that hasn’t had the guts to say “no”  for decades.

But we all know how that goes.  We know who runs America, who pays the politicians, who pays Sean Hannity to blare out the mantra, “Let Freedom Ring.”  It is of course the villains of this country, Corporate America. 

Corporations, like highway speeders, will not police themselves.  They care little for America.  And they care even less for Americans other themselves.  Their goal is profits no matter where or how they can be made.  So they break the speed limit without fear.

Any dummy driving our nation’s highways should be able to see that and know it’s not good for America.