Friday, April 30, 2021

Documentary Review: Jazz in China

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet

Jazz in China
Directed by Eugene Marlow
MEII Enterprises
76 minutes, 2021

April 30 is International Jazz Day, so it seemed appropriate to check out this spankin’ new documentary on the topic.

Jazz is an oxymoron, such as is playing the sitar: there are relatively strict rules dependent on subgenre, but within those rules there is also a freedom of form and expression that makes the music itself nearly meta. To me, this seems to fit in why it works so well in China.

Media Professor and pianist/composer Eugene Marlow, who I have had the pleasure to hear speak, looks into the relationship of jazz and Chinese culture and music. This film is based on Marlow’s book, Jazz in China: From Dance Hall Music to Individual Freedom of Expression (2018).

The opening segments of the documentary, which is about the first half, is partly a history lesson of 20th Century China. It starts with the introduction of jazz to the continent, mostly through the ports of Shanghai. Just as Chinese furniture and styles such as silks were becoming prominent in the import cities of America including San Francisco and New York, the States started exporting music and culture. The free nature of the prominent version of jazz, namely swing, caught on through the introduction of vinyl platters and cinema.

Shanghai, especially, hosted many of America’s musicians, who played at upscale nightclubs. Because there were no segregation rules, both Black and White musicians were allowed to play together in Shanghai venues. This changed, though, when Japan invaded the Chinese land, laying major damage to Chinese cultural institutions and clubs. And just as it was starting to ramp back up after the War, the Communist Revolution squashed anything that wasn’t government sponsored, including classical music. It was a nationwide Flashdance-like suppression.

After Mao’s passing, classical music was permitted, and jazz came back not long after. But by this time, the jazz was more freestyle bop and fusion. It was quickly accepted, and was played on both western style instruments, as well as national, such as the Erhu (二胡).

The latter half of the film discusses more the modern (1980s and onward) influence of jazz, where it stands now, how the government views and regulates it, and where it might go into the future. All fascinating, especially if you are a fan of the genre.

Throughout, one of the main points are the influences in the country, ranging from the introduction of illegal cassette tapes to artists like Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald. There are multitudes of clips of these and other musicians spanning the years, placed at just the right moments of the narrative to enhance the commentary.

The talking heads here are brief, not overstaying their welcome, just long enough to give us the information we need. There are a few western authors and academics, but mostly it’s the musicians themselves, such as Coco Zhao and A Bu, and organizers of the jazz festivals. Rather than focusing on the people who write about the music, a vast majority of those discussing the music are the Chinese musicians themselves, about how they discovered the sound and what it means to them. Again, we get to see many clips of each of them at their instruments in various venues. It is beautifully collected.

To add some of my own views here, in the 1920s and ‘30s, when swing jazz started to spread both here and in especially Shanghai, it was an explosion of culture as jazz was both accepted by the people in that city from the original musicians, both Black and White, as well as it being absorbed and assimilated by the local culture. This is shown in the early part of the documentary quite well, with recordings and films of the time.

When the Communist regime of Mao started to fade in the 1970s, the Chinese were in a similar situation as the African-Americans during the Jim Crow period, full of cultural and governmental oppression, fear of persecution, and stifling of any other lifestyle than the Cultural Revolution. There was a sense of freedom with some hesitation (what I call cultural PTSD, which is somewhat of what the United States is going through at the moment), that reflected the zeitgeist of what is known as the Black experience, and the Chinese, through a music that was used to break out of that strait-jacket in an explosion of free form jazz, identified with the undercurrent of what the music meant to its originators.

Also, I believe that as restrictions from the government have grown over the past few years, especially after Tiananmen Square (1989), the freedom of jazz became a concern to officials, as a symbol of freedom of expression. As one of the commentators says in the documentary, some cities, like Beijing, jazz festivals are an iffy proposition, and even in Shanghai, home of the world’s largest jazz festival, there is a mountain of red tape (no pun intended) that the organizers must wade through to get the fest on.

While I have not read his book yet, Marlow keeps the information flowing, and even more importantly, emphasizes his film’s comments with the actual music. While I enjoy jazz, it is not my forte, and this kept my interest intact from beginning to end. Breaking it up into sections with title cards are just the right thing to do, and having the name identifiers captioned under the artists multiple times was extremely helpful.

The viewer can tell this is a film of passion by Marlow, as well as that of its participants. The organizer of the Shanghai Jazz Festival describes jazz  – in relation to rock or EDM – as peaceful and relaxing. I half agree, in that jazz may not make you want to jump up and down and mosh, but it is an exciting and heart-thumping sound when it is done right. And Marlow shows how it can easily cross both oceans and cultural lines. Bravissimo.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Tales of Job Huntin’

Tales of Job Huntin’

 Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2021
Images from the Internet

I love my job, I truly do. It is the best job I have ever had. My average length of employment at a job lasted 5 years, with some of them being over a decade. Even with that, over the years I have gone through many job interviews; some have been great (even those that I did not get), and others complete disasters (for which I was hired). While highly serious at the time, looking back I can see the humor of it all. Here is the story of some of them over the years. This is, it should be noted, not in chronological order, but rather as I remember them.

* * *

I went for my third interview as a PowerPoint Specialist for business meetings with a multinational corporation on a Friday on a beautiful Spring day. I had met the Human Resources (HR) team on the first one, the head of HR in the second, and for the third, it was the Department Manager, i.e., my potential boss’s boss. He was a big scruff of a man with a lumberjack beard and a big smile. I had been sent there by a man at an employment agency who looked like he could have been on “The Sopranos,” who was excited at the prospect. As it was a good paying position, relatively, his “cut” would be substantial. While not in the chair more than five minutes, he offered me the position. He informed me that the hours were noon to 8 p.m. I was unsure, which took the guy by surprise. I asked him if I could think about it until Monday. He hesitantly agreed, and I left

After exiting the building, I went to a pay phone and called the agency and filled him in. He asked me to come by and fill out some paperwork. I took the train down to the office, and when I went in and sat down next to his desk, he stood up and literally slapped me across the head.

“Are you out of your freakin’ (not the word he used) mind?! This is the best job you’ll ever see in your life, so you better damn well take it!” I was so startled that I agreed, and he called the boss’s boss and told him I was accepting.

I started there two weeks later, and worked there for well over a decade. I am grateful for that head slap.

* * *

I applied for an Assistant position at a large financial company, and was called in for an interview. There were two people conducting the conference, including the head of HR and the woman who would be my boss. I was in my best suit, as were they. They started firing questions at me in very quick succession.

As soon as they asked, I answered, and before long, it was actually pretty relaxed; we were laughing and they seemed really happy with my answers. But never, ever talk without thinking, so my guard was up as I was still enjoying it all.

The potential boss asked me, at about the 40-minute mark, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”

I thought to myself, “I just want to work and be left alone to do the best job I can,” but that would not be a good answer, so what I said instead was, “I wouldn’t mind moving up at some point.” The message I was conveying was that I was a hard worker, and was there for the duration, not as a stepping stone to another job if it came up. It was a good, solid answer.

What took me by surprise was the response by the boss: “The only place to move up is my job.”

The entire mood of the room changed in a snap. You could practically see the icicles starting to form along the bookcases in the room.

Two more questions, and I was out the door. Of course, I never heard from them again, even though I followed up with a phone call that got as far as reception. At first, I blamed myself for giving a bad answer, but I have since discussed it with employment professionals, and have learned and accepted that it actually was a good answer, but one cannot predict how the person listening to the comment heard it, in this case as a threat. That was on her, not me, and in retrospect, probably a good reason for my health that I did not work there.

* * *

While working at a multinational corporation in Manhattan, I heard there was an opening in the Boston office for the equivalent of my boss’s position. It was a nice promotion, and I figured I could move to Boston pretty easily, being five hours away from where I lived, and I already had lots of friends there.

During the interview, the person who would have been my boss asked me, during the 1-hour process, “What would you do to motivate your staff?” I replied, “Well, mostly, I would let them know when they are doing a good job, rather than only hearing from me when there was a problem” (a pet peeve of mine).

He smiled with a facial expression of enlightenment as his face lit up, and started to write that down (the first time his pen touched paper). I thought to myself, “You need to write down to be nice to your staff? I don’t want to work for you.”

After leaving the building, I hung around the Boston Common, which was a couple of blocks away, until I needed to get to the airport to fly home (on their dine). A week later, I heard from them that they had hired the person who had been temporarily filling the position (the inside candidate). I was relieved, because I knew I would turn it down.

A few months later, during an office gathering, my boss pulled me aside and said, “I’m glad you didn’t get that job for a couple of reasons. First, you’re a good employee and make my life easier, and second, that guy is an asshole.”

* * *

In the years I was a computer typesetter in the 1980s, I applied for a position at a medical magazine. The pay was really decent, the highest I had been offered, and my father had been pressuring me to find something as I had been out of work for a year even with searching the Sunday New York Times section, and going to employment agencies. I had left a position at a multinational financial corporation in the World Trade Center, and needed a job.

They gave me a typing test on a Selectric typewriter, and I had 90 words per minute. They were happy. Then they showed me where I would be stationed. It was an exceedingly small room, with no window, even on the door, that had obviously been a closet at one point. The machine was in the corner of the room in which the only light in the entire space was the one on the machine that was aimed at the standee that held the papers from which I was to import the text.

Also, the machine used a chemical process to apply to the paper that was to be used for layouts. The boxes of chemicals took up the other half of the room along with the processor. They casually mentioned that the door had to stay closed because the smell of the chemicals bothered those on the other side of it. The lit side. While I have no sense of smell, so the order would not bother me, it still meant I would be inhaling the fumes. I thought, “no wonder the pay is so good.”

I went home and the next day, they offered me the job. I turned it down. Even my father said that it was a good choice.

* * *

I met someone who worked at the library, and she suggested I apply. So I did, and got called in for an interview. I had just moved to a city in another country, so this would be my first job there, other than some freelance editorial work on a book focused on Human Ecology.

For this interview, there were four people grilling me. Luckily, they asked me rapid-fire questions for which I had ready answers. One of the benefits of many interviews is you get to know what may be some of the questions (e.g., “Tell us a work experience that was stressful,” which is code for “tell us how you overcame it,” not an invitation to kvetch). They seemed pleased with my answers, and I left.

A few days later, I received a call that offered me the position. All I needed to do was bring in a copy of my Master’s Certificate in Media Ecology (Media Theory) from New York University, and to get a police Criminal Record Check, which is common in this city, especially on positions that deal with the public and are run by the City.

I have never been arrested in my life, so I was not worried. With my Master’s Degree in hand, I went to the main police station, and requested my record. The officer at the desk said, “Since this is for the library and you will be with children, you have to go for a Vulnerable Sector check,” which is a national one rather than city-wide.”

“Sure, no problem.” I was not worried about it at all.

“The results will take six to eight months to come back.”

Shocked, I said, “Don’t you guys have computers?”

She laughed and said, “Yes, but it has to go to the nation’s capitol, and there has been people coming in from the hurricane in Haiti, and some boat people have arrived. We put them at the highest priority, which is delaying the responses.”

I said, truthfully, “And rightfully so.” I had the search done anyway.

The police station was across the street from the library, so I walked over (again, in my nice suit) and gave them my Degree to photocopy, and told them what happened at the police station. I said, “I haven’t been in the city very long, and I have an FBI report that I needed to get into the country that shows I’m clear for the rest of the time. In the meanwhile, I will attest in writing that I have never been in trouble with the law and have it notarized.”

She looked sad, and said, “Legally, it has to be from our government. I believe you, but I have no choice but to rescind the offer because we cannot wait for the report that long.”

The report came in seven months, and by that time I had another job. The library called and asked me if I wanted the position, and I said I would have, but I am happy in my new job, even though the pay is a bit less.

* * *

While going for a job as a typesetter, I was in the office of the Departmental Manager, and he asked me, “What is the difference between serif text and sans serif? I had no idea at the moment. It was never an issue at the typesetting jobs I had before. Luckily, before I could answer, he got called away for a moment. In that extra time of five or ten minutes, I remembered what it was as I had looked up information about typesetting in a library some time before.

When he returned, I was smiling and gave him the correct answer, referring to the serifs as “squiggles.” He smiled at that, and offered me the job at the end of the interview. I only worked there for two weeks due to my boss’s unrealistic expectations for a new employee, but I do remember the day before I left was when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up, and we watched it on television in the break room.

* * *

Someone told me I should try to be a 911 operator. If I remember, it was a 12-hour shift from noon to midnight, and the next day midnight to noon, and then a few days off. It was also extremely well paid, with lots of vacation time, though the work could be quite stressful. I figured, sure, why not.

Going online, I filled out an application, and made it to the testing stage. Even though my job would be to sit in a room with a computer and headset, I would still be considered a police officer, so I would have to take the tests (not the physical ones, which I would never have passed with my age and physical condition).

Downtown, there is a convention and performance center, and the test was conducted in one of the huge meeting rooms. It was myself and about 100 other people. It was a three-hour, multiple choice exam, which consisted of hundreds of questions that seemed random, but were meant to show a personality profile. It almost felt schizophrenic. It would be like: “Would you prefer a red balloon or a blue balloon?” “Do you like cloudy days or sunny days?” “How would you approach someone pointing a gun at your head?”

I finished the test, and went home, having absolutely no idea how I did. Shortly after, I got an email requesting my high school transcript. Say what? I phoned them up and said, “I did not do well in high school, but I aced my Master’s. Don’t you want those transcripts instead? They are more accurate.” I was told no; they wanted the high school one. I paid a large fee for the transcript to the school I was bullied and truant in because of it, and never heard from them again. I have no idea if it was the transcript or the test that did me in.

* * *

(photo by Heather Fritz)

I was starting to look for work and not having much luck after leaving my last position and moving, so I went to an agency. They gave me a typing test, had me sit through a three-hour lecture on job searching skills that I already knew from years of experience, and then they pointed to their computer bank and said, basically, “there ya go.” I was doing that at home, so I went to another agency. Same typing test, same three-hour lecture, and a “there ya go.” I was getting frustrated.

At the third agency, after the test, lecture and pointing, I said to the counselor, “Surely you can do more than this.”

He said, “It’s my job to help you get the skills to find a job, not to get you the job.”

“I’m not asking you to get me a job, just point the finger in the direction I specifically should go.”

He gave me the name of someone he knew in a corporate office, and said I should call him. After three calls over three weeks of not getting past the switchboard, I went back to the counsellor. I am not sure if it was guilt or he could see I was a go-getter, but he said, “The best I can do is get you two computer classes at an organization. It is Introduction to Word and Introduction to Excel.”

I knew both those programs, but I had Windows 98 and this was the new 2010 software with the Ribbon, so I thought it would be a good idea to update my skills. It was three days for each class, at three hours long each day.

A couple of weeks later, I received a letter with the dates of the class, with the Word being in the end of October and Excel at the beginning of November. I was ready.

At the beginning of October, there was a phone call from the organization asking why I did not attend the first of the three Excel classes. Confused, I told her that my letter said Excel was the beginning of November. She said she would call me back.

Apparently, there was a typo. She asked if I wanted to start on the second day, or just take the next class which would be in six-weeks. I figured I knew enough about Excel to jump in, so I said I would show up the next day.

The instructor was not impressed with me being there after missing the first class. An hour in, there was a 15-minute break, and in that time, I caught up with everything from the first class. By the end of the day, I was also helping the people on either side of me. The instructor was impressed.

Towards the end of the second class, Word, the instructor asked everyone what their plans were for their newfound knowledge. When it came to my turn, I said, “Well, I’ve always worked in an office, and I assume I will always work in an office, but I think teaching this would be fun.”

Two days later, the instructor called me up and asked if I wanted to teach a night class, because she was going to university and could not do it. I had never taught in my life, so I said, “Sure.”

Of course, it was Excel Intermediate, the hardest of all the classes. Yikes! I went in to the office and practiced the exercises, and got some good advice from the instructor, and my partner who is a professor.

The class went well, and I received some decent evaluations. The Departmental Head asked me if I wanted to teach all the night classes going forward until April (when night classes stopped until the Autumn) as a temp. I said yes, and it was three hours a week.

In the Spring, the instructor announced she was moving to another city, and I would have to apply for the position, but I could teach both the night and day classes, at 12 hours a week.

They put an ad for the job out internally. It was me and one other person (I have no idea who) and as the inside candidate, I got the job, which eventually increased to 30 hours a week, and worked there for 10 happy years.


Monday, April 5, 2021

KILLING JOKE = Time for a Change [1981]

Text by David G. / FFanzeen, 1981 / 2021
Images from the Internet

KILLNG JOKE = Time for a Change [1981 Interview]

This interview with Killing Joke was written by Anglophile and electronica fan David G. (Rosenberg), and was originally printed in FFanzeen Number 8 (Volume 2, Number 5), dated 1981. Note that, despite some personnel changes over the years, currently all the original members of the band as listed below are still in the group and touring.– RBF, 2021.


Youth Martin (Martin Glover) loves reggae, his “Young locks” – a matted mess of tiny braids and tangles that approximates the dread locks he can never have – reflect this. Youth also loves electronic Space Invaders-type video games. He’s mastered them all over the world. Youth plays these games with the sense of wonder and concentration you’d associate with a child, until he deadpans that the games teach him to “think militarily.” Youth plays bass for Killing Joke.

Killing Joke are a new breed of band. They play with as much passion and energy as any “punk” band, but with a focus rarely realized in the past. There’s no denying that these guys know exactly what they’re doing, which is what makes their music so compelling. Sure they’re nihilistic message can get a bit heavy-handed, and the music occasionally repetitious, but they’re sincere about what they do, have no illusions about who they are, and actually care about their audience.

The following interview with Youth and KJ guitarist Geordie (Walker) took place after the soundcheck for their Ritz show. Jaz (Coleman), the vocalist, was originally slated for a chat, but a sore throat that threatened to cancel the gig, prevented this from occurring. Paul (Ferguson; drums) was just missing.

Youth and Georgie proved to be quite amusing conversationalists (especially Youth, who was heard to utter, “Got a quarter?” to anyone who would listen, to play a video game. The whole thing lasted about six minutes.


* * *

FFanzeen: Youth, in Jamming, an English fanzine, you were quoted as saying that, in your opinion, only about two percent of Americans can think for themselves. That was after a single gig here (last New Year’s Eve at the Rock Lounge). Now that you’ve spent some more days in the U.S., do you still agree with your statement?
Youth Martin: Yeah, I’d say the same thing now. Their minds are used in the wrong way. I’d say the same thing about England, but not as severely as America. America is a truly unique place, you might say.

FF: What is the philosophy behind the Killing Joke?
Geordie: It isn’t a philosophy, it’s a frame of mind; an attitude. That’s it, really.

FF: Your lyrics strive to make a statement, but since you don’t include a lyric sheet, and most Americans were probably exposed to your music from a dance point of view rather than listening point of view, do you think much of the point is lost on American ears?
Geordie: Well, the whole tone of the music’s important. They can hear that. It’s not exactly a nice set of times, is it?

FF: In England, Dave “The Wizard,” a fire eater, opened some gigs for you. How did you meet him, and will he be used again?
Geordie: We used to live in the same sort of slum as him. We still used him a couple of months back in England. It depends. We couldn’t afford to bring him over here anyway.
Youth: That’s the original idea, and it still is; it’s five years.

FF: Well, you have about three to go; do you think you’ll make it?
Georgie: Oh, we’ll make the five years; in what form, we don’t know.

FF: A lot of bands, particularly the other “Malicious Damage” bands (Red Beat and Ski Patrol), sound very similar to Killing Joke.
Geordie: Most of them just copy us, basically. They’re the worst offenders; not so much Ski Patrol, but Red Beat, they just rip us off: a certain period off the first album, they were obsessed with it. There are a few bands we did gigs with – A Certain Ratio – and we did another tour with them and they started playing disco. Things like that, complete rip-offs of our songs. No one believes us, that Adam Ant was at one of our early gigs, you know, and we did “Wardance,” you know, and all that, and that’s where he got his idea from. He used to come around to all our gigs. No one believes us, though.


FF: The English press, which probably chose to ignore you at the beginning, has no choice due to your popularity, but to cover you now.
Geordie: It’s just the fact that we haven’t gone away and it proves that their original reviews were wrong. They still don’t like us; they slag us off, but they can’t put their finger on what we do. It’s just beyond them.

FF: How does most of your material come about?
Geordie: We just know about ideas, and they play ‘em to death.

FF: Do you think that people, in a broad sense, ever learn by their mistakes?
Geordie: Well, they will.
Youth: Not always.