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Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Trumpeter Miles Davis, circa 1959. He once said, ‘”There are no wrong notes in jazz. It’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”‘ A small study suggests that jazz and classical music have different effects on the brain.

Pacific Standard loves these small-scale studies because they are fun and interesting. But as a retiree from an organization dominated by economists, I feel compelled to remind you that larger studies are needed.

Now for the fun. Tom Jacobs writes at Pacific Standard, “Can creativity be taught? Not directly, perhaps. But if such a curriculum exists, it would train one’s brain to regard unforeseen occurrences as potential springboards, rather than disturbing anomalies.

“Fortunately, there is at least one type of specialized training that shapes neural activity in precisely that way. …

“In a new, small-scale study, a Wesleyan University research team led by Psyche Loui and Emily Przysinda report the brains of jazz musicians are uniquely attuned to surprising sounds. Electronic monitoring revealed these players have ‘markedly different neural sensitivity to unexpected musical stimuli,’ the researchers write.

“These musicians are trained not only to anticipate unpredictable turns, but also to engage with them in a positive, creative way. That dynamic reflex stimulates creative thinking.

“The study in … Brain and Cognition featured 36 students from Wesleyan University and the Hartt School of Music. Twelve were studying jazz (including improvisation), 12 classical music, and the final 12 were non-musicians. …

“The participants completed a short version of a well-known creative thinking test, in which they were given six open-ended prompts such as ‘List all the uses you can think of for a paper clip’ in three minutes. They were scored on both the number of items they came up with, and their originality (that is, how often each answer was also given by other students). …

“The young musical improvisers were uniquely receptive to unexpected sounds. …

” ‘The improvisatory and experimental nature of jazz training can encourage musicians to take notes and chords that are out of place, and use them as a pivot to transition to new tonal and musical ideas,’ Loui and her colleagues write. ‘This could lead to the increased cognitive flexibility in jazz musicians.’ …

“It’s possible that people who decide to learn an instrument have brains that are pre-wired in a certain way, but previous research suggests that’s unlikely. Loui plans to study that issue, as well as whether other types of artistic training — say, improvisational theater — will yield similar results.”

More here.

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Photo: World Music
Harold López-Nussa, pianist and leader of the Harold López-Nussa Cuban jazz trio, which astonished the crowd at the Berklee Performance Center last night.

We have now seen the amazing Cuban jazz trio headed by Harold López-Nussa twice, and we still can hardly believe the pyrotechnics and joyfulness that explode from this young crew.

A documentary maker who is a part-time resident of New Shoreham had been to Cuba and, having gotten to know Harold, was determined to bring the trio to Rhode Island. It took a few years. We got to hear them last summer in the St Andrews parish hall.

Last night they played for an astonished crowd at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center as part of the World Music/Crash Arts series.

Here’s what the World Music website says: “Havana-based composer and pianist Harold López-Nussa travels smoothly through his classical, Cuban, and jazz inspirations to create an exceptional style of global jazz. His trio includes his younger brother, Ruy Adrián López-Nussa, a renowned musician in his own right, on percussion and Gaston Joya on bass.”

What is not conveyed by that description is the extraordinary virtuosity of each of the performers. Harold, yes, but also his younger brother the drummer, and his “brother of another mother,” the bass player.

The trio is like a fireworks display that you grin all the way through. In any one piece, they seem to be ending and you start cheering, when all of a sudden there is an explosive burst more astonishing even than the one you just heard — and you’re off to the races again.

Harold is the only one who speaks enough English to introduce the numbers, which he or his bass player or various Cuban greats composed. He likes to tell you about composing one long piece in his rattle-trap Polish car (in video below), which he says is so slow he has loads of time to think. A gentle, nostalgic piece was written for his late mother.

From Harold’s website: “López-Nussa was born into a musical family in Havana on July 13, 1983. Not only are his father and uncle – Ernán, a pianist – working musicians, but his late mother, Mayra Torres, was a highly regarded piano teacher.

“At the age of eight, López-Nussa began studying at the Manuel Saumell Elementary School of Music, then the Amadeo Roldán Conservatory and finally graduating with a degree in classical piano from the Instituto Superior de Artes (ISA). ‘I studied classical music and that’s all I did until I was 18,’ he says. Then came jazz.

“ ‘Jazz was scary. Improvisation was scary. That idea of not knowing what you are going to play…’ he says, his voice trailing off. “At school I learned the works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and then it was all very clear. That permanent risk in which jazz musicians find themselves in all the time was terrifying-of course, now I find myself in that risk all the time.’ ”

Last night, as Harold thanked all the people who helped the trio get to Boston, he said, “You wouldn’t believe what it takes to get out of Cuba to come here.” Here’s hoping it gets easier so they can reach all the audiences who will love them.

Check out the trio’s website here and this, the blurb for the World Music concert at Berklee.

Although the video doesn’t show the fireworks of the current trio, it nicely documents how Harold worked with an earlier group of collaborators. And it features the Polish car.

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I was delighted when Will McMillan asked me to review his Blame Those Gershwins CD, with music composed by Steve Sweeting, who also is on piano.

I think the first time I became aware of singer McMillan was in a production of the musical Tortoise, in which he played a sweet, low-key guy unimpressed by the hectic modern world. But I may have seen him in television ads when he was a little boy. He’s been performing that long.

I’ve listened to this CD several times now, and I’m really loving it. The title song playfully borrows themes from the greats — the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, and more. It tells the story of a fan who finds more comfort in the American Songbook than in the unreliable world of romance (but who is also able to poke fun at himself).

I ought to think twice;/Should I really be relying on Kurt Weill for advice?/Life doesn’t rhyme like lyrical knowledge/You get from Rodger and Hartenstein College.

The lyrics for that song are written by Sweeting, who wrote the words for several of the other songs. The joyful “Bounce to the Wave,” with words by Betina Hershey, had me thinking of swing dancing but may suggest other bouncy activities to you, including children jumping on a new mattress. One tune was created for a lovely ee cummings poem that I wish we had known about when Suzanne and Erik got married. The cummings poem we chose was more obscure. In fact, I told the congregation, “We don’t know what it means, but we like the way it sounds.” (“Not even the rain has such small hands.)

McMillan wrote the lyrics to several songs, including “Stuff,”  in which he ponders his good fortune in experiencing the beauty and peace of nature and compares those wonders to other “stuff” we collect in our getting and spending world. He asks, “What have I done in some other life, to be blessed with this stuff,” reminding me of an uncharacteristically plaintive Elaine Stritch singing “somewhere in my youth and childhood/I must have done something good.”

Sweeting’s gentle, wistful persona in “Wait” is self-critical for hoping that something wonderful will happen without action on his part — and for being so resigned. “I sit and watch a year or ten just slip away/I let life come to me,/If it doesn’t,/Say it wasn’t meant to be.”

I really loved each song for its different strengths: the carefree “Let’s Go to the River,” the hopeful “What Am I Doing Alone,” the wise and accepting “Let It All Go,” in which Sweeting suggests that if a poem fails to flow and a friend fails to know when you need a friend, “Maybe the answer/is to love a poem and to write a friend.”

This is music for the thinking music lover. It is thoughtful without being cerebral. It doesn’t talk down to the listener. The questioning, patient vibe suggests a tentativeness that is a kind of strength, a self-knowledge that is OK with not having all the answers and an openness to receiving the joy that is offered. Amazon has the CD. And iTunes. It’s going to be my companion in the car at least until I have all the lyrics memorized.

Oh, and kudos to Doug Hammer, McMillan’s longtime piano collaborator, for the recording and mixing on this one.

McMillan and Sweeting’s launch party is October 2 in Somerville, Mass. Call 617 628 0916. Or check Brown Paper Tickets online.

Will McMillan and Steve Sweeting, the guys behind the jazzy, bluesy CD Blame Those Gershwins

Will McMillan & Steve SweetingA

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At WBUR’s The Artery, Andrea Shea has a story about a composer with a penchant for unusual texts: the package blurbs practically everyone reads at breakfast when the newspaper hasn’t arrived.

“Musicians are always searching for inspiration,” writes Shea, “and sometimes they find it in some unlikely places.

“Take Brian Friedland, a prolific Boston composer and jazz pianist who’s discovered a creative goldmine in his cupboards. He takes words on packaging for products such as granola, mouthwash and tea, then sets them to some pretty sophisticated music. Friedland calls the funny-but-serious project ‘Household Items’ and he has a new CD. …

“Friedland is not a singer, but he sees amusing, absurdist potential in labels featuring characters, quests or ‘extreme’ wording. He started foraging for inspiration about eight years ago and had an epiphany when he read a can of carpet cleaner after his cat missed the litter box.

“It read, ‘Do not. Do not puncture. Do not freeze. Do not incinerate. Do not expose to heat above 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Do not inhale.’ He made them into a percussive, vocally complex work where the singer repeats, ‘Do not! Do not! Do not puncture,’ with urgency.”

Percussionist and singer Laura Grill “performed a few songs, including one about a fragrant skin moisturizer.

“ ‘There’s one benefit of having these sort of accessible lyrics,’Grill said, ‘because people are like, “Oh right — Avon Peach Hand Lotion — I can connect with that.” ’

“Grill, also an [New England Conservatory] alum, says Friedland has found a unique solution to an age-old problem.

“ ‘As someone who enjoys composing and arranging, one of the hardest things is trying to write lyrics,’ she said, ‘so Brian finds them on his coffee packages and appliances.’ ”

Listen to Friedland’s SleepyTime tea music with lyrics taken straight from the box at WBUR, here.

Photo: Andrea Shea/WBUR
Brian Friedland, a composer who puts text from product packaging to music.

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Sometimes it just takes one person to be a catalyst. Internationally known jazz musician Danilo Pérez is a catalyst for a growing jazz scene in his native Panama. He has a special focus on getting young people excited about jazz and giving them a chance to become musicians.

At the NY Times, Melena Ryzik writes, “Even in jazz, which has a long tradition of mentorship, Mr. Pérez, 49, has emerged as a singular figure. Nearly 30 years after he left his native Panama to study jazz composition at Berklee [College of Music in Boston], he has made promoting musicianship in Panama — using music as a springboard, cultural unifier and teaching tool — his life’s work.

“In 2005, a year after he started [a] jazz festival with his family, he created the Danilo Pérez Foundation, a nonprofit center for music education and outreach; the festival, which draws as many as 30,000 people over its six-day run each January, provides money for the foundation. The club, which opened last February at the new American Trade Hotel, a luxe outpost of the Ace Hotel chain, is, in his view, the last piece of the puzzle.”

Read more.

Photo: Jennifer Shanley
Danilo Pérez (right) directs the Berklee Global Jazz Institute inaugural class.

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I love listening to Worcester-based WICN (jazz radio). Bonnie Johnson had an especially good show yesterday, opening with Cynthia Scott and 3rd, 4th & 5th graders of PS32 in Brooklyn, NY, singing “Dream for One Bright World.”

“There is a new day dawning
“The time is now
“The world is ready for a change …

“Let’s teach out children to care
“To help one another
“And mend broken hearts
“So many children in the world
“Have never had a chance
“Their time has come …

(More lyrics here.)

You can listen to WICN online at wicn.org. Bonnie Johnson’s program is described at Colors of Jazz. “Bonnie Johnson is host of Colors of Jazz on Sunday afternoon from noon-4 pm. If you asked the Worcester native how she found jazz, she would tell you that jazz found her. As an undergraduate student at Howard University in Washington, DC, Ms. Johnson became a fan of the Quiet Storm featured on the college station WHUR-FM. …

“Ms. Johnson appreciates the diversity and the evolution of music. As a self-taught electric bassist, she has enjoyed many years of playing various types of music with her daughter and close friends in a family band. Growing up, she sang in the St. Cecilia Girl Choir at All Saints Worcester. …

“Ms. Johnson holds B.A. in Liberal Studies and M.S. in Communications and Information Management degrees from Bay Path College. She believes the future of jazz is in our children, stating, ‘Music and the arts is one area that gives young people an outlet and release of creative energy. While there are many children exposed to music through lessons and attending live performances, there are too many more that are not.’ One of Johnson’s primary goals as host at WICN is to reach youth in creative ways through community engagement.”

That’s something to think about on Martin Luther King’s birthday — and maybe to act on, too.

Bonnie Johnson, host of WICN radio’s Colors of Jazz 

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You never know what will turn up at Studio 360, a radio show on the arts. A feature on November 21 explained how one of the legendary jazz greats toilet-trained his cat.

“The jazz musician Charles Mingus was a celebrated band leader and one of the most important composers of his generation. But at the same time he was recording The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, he was working on another masterpiece of sorts. He figured out how to get his cat, Nightlife, to poop in a toilet — and he decided he’d share his method with the world.

The Charles Mingus CAT-alog for Toilet Training Your Cat was a step-by-step guide available for purchase by mail. It’s full of charming advice and meticulous pedagogical detail:

“Here’s an excerpt from Step 1:

Once your cat is trained to use a cardboard box, start moving the box around the room, towards the bathroom. If the box is in a corner, move it a few feet from the corner, but not very noticeably. If you move it too far, he may go to the bathroom in the original corner. Do it gradually. You’ve got to get him thinking. Then he will gradually follow the box as you move it to the bathroom. (Important: if you already have it there, move it out of the bathroom, around, and then back. He has to learn to follow it. If it is too close to the toilet, to begin with, he will not follow it up onto the toilet seat when you move it there.) A cat will look for his box. …

“Reporter Jody Avirgan put the method to the test on four-month-old kitten Dizzy. His owners, Kevin and Nicole, even played Mingus throughout the process.”

More at Studio 360, here, including a recording of the show.

Photo: Jody Avirgan
Dizzy the cat is interviewed for Studio 360.

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I’m back in America. America is what people on the island call the mainland. “I have to go to America today. Dentist appointment.” “I missed the boat and got stuck in America.”

Here are a few pictures from America. Burdock in bloom. Warnings from a stone wall that has “achieved balance.” An alley in Fort Point. A tour guide on the Common. Berklee students performing jazz at Atlantic Wharf. A decorative plaque on a building that wasn’t always a hotel.

I have two questions. Who knew that burdock had pink flowers? What are “spitting spiders”?

burdock-has-a-pink-flower

 

flower-pot-at-Artinian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

spider-warning-on-wall

rocks-in-balance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

fort-point-channel-buildings

 

 

 

a-guide-on-Boston-Common

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Berklee-students-at-Atlatic-Wharf

coins-on-old-central-bank

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I remember going with Nicky Perls up a steep and very narrow stairway near Times Square years ago so my brother could buy bootlegged blues 78s. Later Nicky traveled the South buying up old 78s and rediscovering blues singers like Mississippi John Hurt.

Record collecting can become an obsession, as seen in a Brooklyn Magazine excerpt from Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, by Amanda Petrusi.

Petrusi says, “In the 1940s, 78 collecting meant jazz collecting, and specifically Dixieland or hot jazz, which developed in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century and was defined by its warm, deeply playful polyphony …

“Because of its origins, collecting rare Dixieland records in 1942 was not entirely unlike collecting Robert Johnson records in 1968, or, incidentally, now: deifying indigent, local music was a political act, a passive protest against its sudden co-optation by popular white artists. …

“In January 1944 [collector James] McKune took a routine trip to [the Jazz Record Center operated by Big Joe Clauberg] and began pawing through a crate labeled ‘Miscellany,’ where he found a record with ‘a sleeve so tattered he almost flicked past it.’ It was a … nearly unplayable copy of Paramount 13110, Charley Patton’s ‘Some These Days I’ll Be Gone.’

“Patton … was almost entirely unknown to modern listeners; certainly McKune had never heard him before. He tossed a buck at a snoozing Clauberg and carted the record back to Brooklyn. As [scholar Marybeth] Hamilton wrote, ‘even before he replaced the tone arm and turned up the volume and his neighbor began to pound on the walls, he realized that he had found it, the voice he’d been searching for all along.’ ”

More here on the world of the impassioned music collector.

Photo: Nathan Salsburg

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Listening to the lone WICN radio host early Saturday morning reminded me of when I was a WGMC radio host in Greece, New York — until Suzanne was six months old and starting to reach over the baby seat to grab the turntable.

I was never sure if anyone was out there listening, but I liked doing it anyway.

Kind of like blogging.

At 5:30 a.m., the WICN host was playing a series of mellow tunes. He seemed to be enjoying the music, which means he didn’t talk much. I appreciate that kind of host so much more than the ones who love to hear themselves talk.

WICN, “Jazz Plus,  for New England,” is a rare boon to jazz lovers. Having been to the studio recently to donate school instruments, I couldn’t help thinking that the hours before dawn on a Saturday must be pretty bleak and lonely in that industrial part of Worcester.

The only thing I was able learn about the host after Googling around was that his last name is Chandler. It was nice to think of Mr. Chandler enjoying the music in that barren neighborhood before 6 a.m., and I wish I had told him that someone was listening and appreciated the way he rode the records, transitioning so smoothly.

You can listen to WICN online, here, if you don’t live near Worcester. Send the station an e-mail to tell a host you’re listening. It’s a small outfit. I’m still waiting to hear back from my own e-mail.

If you are free during a weekday, be sure to catch a live performance by Pamela Hines and Arnie Krakowsky (below) on January 29.

Update 1/27/14: WICN General Manager Gerry Weston e-mails that the early morning host was “Osay Chandler, he’s out of Pittsburgh.”

Photo: WICN
Join pianist Pamela Hines and her special guest on January 29 at 2 p.m. Arnie Krakowsky, a  professional tenor saxophone jazz musician, will perform live with Hines in the WICN studio.

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My husband and I are big fans of Broadway music and also of Boston area singer Will McMillan, who gave a free concert in the Brighton library today.

The show was centered around the composer Harold Arlen, beloved for songs such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “Blues in the Night,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” and “That Old Black Magic.” Interspersed with his songs, Will gave a delightful rundown on Arlen’s life, work, and main collaborators (Ted Koehler, Johnny Mercer, and Yip Harburg).

For my money, no one puts over a song with the emotional truth of Will McMillan. He becomes the story. In fact, he almost skipped a beat on the little-known intro to “Rainbow,” when the words seemed to carry special meaning for him. And I really liked how he tied the words of “If I Only Had a Heart” to an important goal in his life: “to be a friend to the sparrows and the boy with the arrows.” Or, to see all sides.

Joe Reid, a fine jazz improviser, accompanied Will on the piano and got “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” in his honor.

Read more at Will’s blog, here, where you can listen to his MP3s, too. Catch him and frequent collaborator Bobbi Carrey at Scullers November 14.

Cabaret singer Will McMillan with a fan after his show in Brighton today.

Will-McM-with-fan

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I like to listen to a jazz radio station out of Worcester, WICN.

The other day the announcer mentioned an effort funded by TD Bank’s charitable foundation to collect old school instruments and refurbish them for a new generation.

If you live near Worcester and have been wondering what to do with those drums and violins, consider dropping them off at 50 Portland St. If you don’t live near Worcester, you might consider looking for a similar program in your town — or even starting one. Other TD Banks might help out. Banks in general can be good sources of such community support.

Here’s what the website says: “WICN 90.5, the NPR jazz station in Worcester, and Worcester Public Schools continue their collaboration called Instrumental Partners. The program collects used musical instruments from Central New England residents for the benefit of public school students. ‘We’re approaching 100 instruments donated so far!’ said WICN General Manager Gerry Weston. Instrumental Partners began in 2012.

“All instruments are accepted: brass, wind, string, percussion, acoustic, electric, etc. Worcester Public Schools Performing Arts Liaison Lisa Leach said, ‘We are very excited about this collaboration and putting instruments in the hands of young people who are unable to purchase or rent them, but still have the desire and work ethic to make music an integral part of their developing lives.’ ” More.

If you want to call first, the number is 508 752 0700.

12/27/13 Update. Today I took the oboe and the alto sax below to WICN for the Worcester Public Schools music program. Now a new generation of children will play them.

school-instruments-sax=oboe

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Nearly every morning when I was four or so, my mother would send me upstairs to wake my father, and he would sing in a hungover gravelly voice “Minnie the Moocher.”

Last weekend I sang a few lines to my Swedish son-in-law, including “She had a ro-mance with the King Sweden/ Who gave her things that she was needin’.” I won’t repeat what he said about another King of Sweden.

See all the correct lyrics here.

Anyway, I was pondering the phrase “she was the roughest, toughest frail” when I happened upon a radio talk show on how we date ourselves if we use older terms: if we say “blouse” instead of “shirt” or “slacks” instead of “pants.” The radio host made a big deal of young people who don’t know that a “churchkey” opens bottles, for example.

Photo of a “churchkey”: Wikipedia.com

Churchkey is a fun term, but older terms from my father are even more fun. Do you know “infradig,” for example? Other words he used will come to me later, and I’ll update.

Meanwhile, what is a “frail,” rough and tough or otherwise? The Slang Dictionary provides the usage in a sentence:

“n. a girl; a woman. (Underworld. frail frame = dame. Detective novels and movies):  ‘I’ll shoot the frail if you don’t hand it over!’ Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions, by Richard A. Spears. Fourth Edition.
Copyright 2007. Published by McGraw Hill.

By the way, almost any song from the musical Guys and Dolls will give you a flavor of the period I’m talking about.

And here’s Cab Calloway, who made Minnie famous.

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I was driving home from Rhode Island Sunday, when I paused the radio at WGBH. A terrific audio essay was on, hosted by Nina Simone’s daughter.

Nina Simone was among the most important voices of the sixties for me, right up there with MLK Jr., JFK, and Joan Baez. Her blend of jazz, blues, and folk was underpinned by powerful emotion. I think I had all her albums back then. A classically trained pianist, Simone had a distinctive voice that was full of caring and pain, even though her personality was often described as abrasive. (And as far as that goes, she had her reasons.)

The best thing about the WGBH broadcast was the selection of the songs. Brought back memories. I was also interested to learn about her connections to Langston Hughes, Odetta, and Lorraine Hansberry.

Hear some of her music at NPR.

Photograph of Nina Simone and her daughter, indiewire.com

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A 91-year-old Hindu gentleman has joined the tai chi chuan class I take Saturday mornings. His wife brings him a little after we have started, and he walks slowly between the wall of mirrors and the line of practicing students to sit in a folding metal chair, where the teacher explains the upper-body part of the exercises so he can join in. Age has not kept him from that.

After today’s class, I was driving home and heard Susan Stamberg interview Marian McPartland, 94, here, on National Public Radio. A fantastic jazz pianist, McPartland recorded her last Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz show only two years ago — after 33 years — but continues as artistic director. She is also the subject of a documentary called In Good Time that highlights the day in August 1958 when she was part of a famous photo of jazz greats in Harlem, below.

Speaking of nonagenarians, folksinger and activist Pete Seeger, 93, showed up on Colbert recently. At first I thought he was not answering a question and was wandering, but it soon became clear he was unfurling a story in his own way and that it would end precisely on point.

Seeger still splits logs to heat his house with wood. And his banjo playing hasn’t aged a bit.

Photograph: Art Kane/Art Kane Archives

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