Today, the country's singing John Prine songs. The great songwriter and performer died Tuesday at Vanderbilt's Hospital in Nashville, the latest musician taken away by Covid-19. He was 73. His songs burst into America's consciousness in the dark days of ...
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Farewell, John Prine and more...

Farewell, John Prine

Today, the country's singing John Prine songs.

The great songwriter and performer died Tuesday at Vanderbilt's Hospital in Nashville, the latest musician taken away by Covid-19. He was 73.

His songs burst into America's consciousness in the dark days of disco, emblems of a new wave of rock creativity that included Bruce Springsteen, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jackson Browne and Ry Cooder.

Like Raymond Carver, Prine gave voice to the neglected and forgotten, lonely and addicted. Along with songs of heartbreak and doomed love affairs, he joined Randy Newman and Roger Miller as satirists who made listeners laugh until they cried.

Prine's songs were covered by many other artists, revealing that his compositions were more sophisticated than his performances showed. He was the top interpreter of his work, his voice as prophetic as Woody Guthrie's, Bob Dylan's, Springsteen's and Neil Young's. Not known for his guitar playing, he enhanced his songs with distinctive finger-picking riffs and steady thumb-driven rhythm.

With John Prine gone, I will have to stop and count the years.



Fred Hersch, the AJC, Joe Posnanski and others bring light during dark days

Some bright spots during this dress rehearsal for the apocalypse:

*Jazz pianist Fred Hersch is performing a musical selection at 1 p.m. each day on Facebook. Hersch, who has been treated for HIV since 1984 and was placed in a medically induced coma for two months in 2008, displays warmth and empathy for all of us trying to cope with the unprecedented crisis.

Hersch plays with the precision and sensitivity of classical pianists. His jazz albums, whether as a solo artist or recorded with his trio, are among the best of recent years. Hersch’s repertory covers his own compositions, numbers from "the American Songbook" expanded to include Joni Mitchell and the Beatles, and classics from Thelonious Monk and other jazz masters.

Sidelined from concert touring and recording because of the pandemic, Hersch performs his daily pieces on live video from his home. The pieces show an engaging intimacy and impromptu musical joy.

*With no sports, the AJC's Mark Bradley has raised his game with a run of outstanding columns. With March Madness abandoned, Bradley alleviated baskeball fans' grief with an engaging series on the best Final Fours. He comforted Atlanta fans with a heartwarming interview with saintly longtime Braves usher Walter Banks.

On Tuesday, Bradley looked in on legendary UGA football coach Vince Dooley. Sadly, Dooley is less and less hopeful that college football will kick off next fall. If that horrible loss occurs, we'll have Mark Bradley to ease the pain.

Along with Bradley, the AJC reporters and photographers have done an exemplary job covering the crisis. Along with in-depth local news articles and features, the newspaper has presented a thorough selection of national stories. Several of my former colleagues remain on the journalistic front lines. I'm proud of them all.

*Veteran sportswriter Joe Posnanski is hitting a home run for baseball fans with his 100 greatest players series on the Athletic web site. Posnanski, who wrote the recent well-received biography of Harry Houdini and appeared at the Mercer University Press' gala authors' luncheon last holiday season, gives followers of the game plenty to savor and argue about.

His rankings aren't necessarily based on a player's importance, but on an accomplishment associated with him. For example, he placed Joe Dimaggio at 56 because of his fabled 56-game hitting streak. Still, that's pretty low for the Yankee Clipper and Marilyn Monroe paramour.

*The New York Times has also placed its immense journalistic machinery into high gear for indispensable pandemic coverage. The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books are also stepping up.

*On the cable news front, MSNBC has stood out for its outrage and reporting on the Trump administration's failings. Not as strident, CNN has been giving steady information.

As New Yorker writer Walcott Gibbs said in a 1936 parody of Time magazine, "where it all will end, knows God."






Farewell Tom Dempsey, old-school Saints hero

The New York Times is covering New Orleans' coronavirus disaster as if it were The Times-Picayune, thanks to editor Dean Baquet, a native of the Crescent City.

On Monday, the Times ran several pages of photos showing how the coronavirus crisis has emptied New Orleans' once rollicking streets. Photographer Annie Flanagan also captured New Orleans people at home, or bravely carrying on jobs. Flanagan's portraits have the haunting, timeless quality of Ernest J. Bellocq's Storyville picutres from the early 20th century.

The photos of a ravaged New Orleans made legendary Saints kicker Tom Dempsey's obituary all the more poignant. The 73-year-old Dempsey, suffering from dementia, died Saturday in a New Orleans nursing home from coronavirus complications.

Dempsey, born without toes on his right foot, gave the Saints one of their few moments of glory in their early years, booting a 63-yard field goal in 1970 that remained an NFL record for four decades. He wore a special club-like shoe that foes grumbled gave him an unfair advantage.

Back then, the Saints played in old Tulane Stadium, home of the Sugar Bowl. Waking late on Sunday mornings, my friend who lived in New Orleans and I would walk down Willow Street to the old Depression-era stadium and buy inexpensive tickets from scalpers. As we downed beers amid the looney fans, autumn colors and gorgeous cheerleaders, even Saints losses were entertaining. A rare victory sent us off to an ecstatic Sunday evening of more debauchery.

The old Saints were known more for partying than playing, and Dempsey fit the mold. After his dramatic kick, he and New Orleans police celebrated for several days with cases of Dixie beer, as the obituary relates.

Dempsey was a burly, old-school kicker in the Lou Groza tradition. He was one of the last straight-ahead kickers as the soccer style took over, and despite his handicap rumbled down the field after kickoffs looking for contact.

Dempsey was a hero of New Orleans' open, free-wheeling spirit. His Covid-19 death marks the city's pain.


Coronavirus taking heavy toll among musical artists

Atlanta's spring has never been so beautiful.

The soft light, blooming dogwoods and azaleas and boundless blue sky of the past few days bring solace as the coronavirus death toll rises to doomsday heights.

While Americans have lost fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, the high number of fatalities among musicians puts a face on the tragedy.

The same day New Orleans piano master Ellis Marsalia died at 85, jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarrelli, 94, succumbed to the disease. This week, the music world has also lost country singer Joe Diffie, Fountains of Wayne leader Adam Schlesinger and trumpeter Wallace Roney. The latter three showed the virus has no age limit: Diffie was 61, Schlesinger 52 and Roney 59.

Beloved singer and songwriter John Prine and Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson are battling COVID-19.

The musicians lost to the virus displayed the astonishing variety of American music.

Diffie set the standard for a generation of swaggering Nashville male performers and their salutes to drinking, fast cars and sexy women. He was performing his rowdy hits until falling ill with COVID-19. He died last Sunday after telling fans he'd showed symptoms of the disease.

Schlesinger wrote the charmingly naughty hit "Stacy's Mom" and was acclaimed for his movie and TV compositions. His work portrayed the suburban angst of middle class young men, a different view of American masculinity than Diffie's, but with similar toxic relationships with women.

Mentored by Miles Davis, Roney displayed similar virtuosity and experimental spirit. Roney followed Davis' dual pathway of bebop rigor and openness to different musical forms.

Pizzarelli, increasing the guitar's range with his seven-string instrument, contributed to many pop hits as a session musician before launching an esteemed performing career.

A star of New York City's sophisticated cabaret/jazz club scene, he was known for his performances with his son, John Pizzarelli, and John's wife, the singer Jessica Molaskey.

As I write this, the news arrives that soul singer Bill Withers has died at age 81. Withers' death was caused by heart problems, not COVID-19, according to reports. Withers recorded "Lean on Me," "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" and other hits. His "Lean on Me" has been a popular inspirational anthem for health care workers and others during the pandemic.

These artists' music shows the range of human creativity. Their lives were taken by the virus, but their work lives on.





Farewell, Ellis Marsalis Jr.

New Orleans pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr. represented a different musical tradition from the rhythm and blues of Dr. John, Fats Domino and Professor Longhair.

Marsalis died Wednesday at age 85 from pneumonia caused by the coronavirus, according to news reports, one of several musicians who have died from COVID-19 in recent days.

A master of the restrained bebop style, Marsalis like fellow New Orleans maestro Allen Toussaint found his greatest success as a performer late in his career.

While Toussaint in his later years moved toward Marsalis' style as a pianist after penning R&B hits like "Mother-in-Law" and "It's Raining So Hard" and producing a number of New Orleans records, Marsalis remained loyal to the cerebral tradition of Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner and Oscar Peterson. Now Bill Charlap and his wife, Renee Rosnes, and a few others keep the genre going.

Standing outside traditional Dixieland and R&B, Marsalis played with refined control, a classical style more associated with New York City and Philadelphia than New Orleans. Marsalis brought cool jazz to the birthplace of hot jazz.

In contrast to the rollicking exuberance of New Orleans R&B, Marsalis displayed quiet precision, crafting delicate patterns of notes on jazz standards and his own compositions. Eschewing electric instruments and fusion concepts, the elegantly dressed Marsalis gave performances each week with an acoustic trio at Snug Harbor on Frenchman Street. He mostly played with young players adept at cool jazz.

When his style of jazz lost popularity with the rise of rock and roll, Marsalis turned to teaching, influencing New Orleans musicians Terence Blanchard, Harry Connick Jr., Nicholas Payton, Donald Harrison, Victor Goines and Reginald Veal. His  esteemed academic career included founding the University of New Orleans' prestigious jazz program.

Marsalis also shaped the careers of his sons, Wynton, the acclaimed trumpeter and director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, saxophonist Branford, trombone player Felfeayo and drummer Jason.

Before turning to an academic career, Marsalis did his time playing at New Orleans' Playboy Club, in a Marine band and accompanying the tourist-friendly Dixieland of Bourbon Street trumpeter and showman Al Hirt. When required by audience demands, Marsalis showed he could play the R&B classics.

Starting out, Marsalis collaborated with sax players Cannonball and Nat Adderley. Turning away from New Orleans' rowdy bar music, Marsalis formed a bebop combo with Alvin and Harold Batiste, members of another famous New Orleans family. The Marsalis-Batiste collaboration continued through the years. Pianist Jon Batiste shows Marsalis' influence.

The huge success of Marsalis' sons brought national recognition to his playing, and he recorded several albums and performed in New York City and elsewhere.

Marsalis' late emergence helped revive cool jazz, long seen as endangered. As a new generation of jazz musicians moves further into experimentation, fusion and abstraction, Marsalis' career looks like the twilight of an era.