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Author: Robin Elliott

Book Review

Book Review

Jane Cooper.The Canadian Nightingale: Bertha Crawford and the Dream of the Prima Donna. Victoria, BC: Friesen Press, 2017. 334 pp., ill.

ISBN 978-1-5255-1740-2 (hardcover, $26.49) / 978-1-5255-1741-9 (paperback, $15.49) / 978-1-5255-1742-6 (eBook, $9.99). All prices are quoted from the Friesen Press website as of 14 November 2018. The book is also available from Indigo and Amazon. The author’s website about the book, including a video trailer for it, is here, and there is an article about Cooper and the book on Ottawa’s artsfile website here.

Jane Cooper was intrigued by a passing reference in a letter written by her great-aunt in 1924 about Berta Crawford, an English opera singer in Warsaw. She googled the singer’s name and learned that she was actually Canadian, not English. Her curiosity piqued, Cooper embarked upon what turned out to be a six-year research project that has resulted in this meticulously detailed and gracefully written biography. Undaunted by a lack of interest in her book from traditional publishers, Cooper launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money and then had the biography produced by Friesen Press, a self-publishing outfit based in Victoria, BC. The resulting book meets the very highest editorial and production standards and is a worthy addition to the not terribly extensive library of books about Canadian opera singers.

Bertha May Crawford was born in Elmvale, Ontario (ca. 135 km north of Toronto) in 1886, and died in Toronto in 1937 at the age of fifty. The limited horizons those bare facts suggest – a life lived within the confines of a small area of southern Ontario – could not be further from the truth. After lessons with Edward Schuch in Toronto, Crawford was trained in London and Milan. Her career as a professional singer began in Italy but blossomed in Poland, and subsequent travels took her across the Russian empire, from Finland to Vladivostok. In Italy she had changed her name to Berta de Giovanni as a secret nod to her father, whose name was John (Giovanni in Italian). But after leaving Italy for Eastern Europe she dropped the “de Giovanni” while keeping the Italianate spelling of her first name, so she was “Berta Crawford” in Europe but reverted to “Bertha Crawford” for concerts in North America. For most of her career she was based in Warsaw, where she was highly regarded for her appearances as a coloratura soprano in opera, in concert, and later on the radio. Her signature roles were Gilda in Rigoletto, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, and Violetta in La traviata.

Crawford enjoyed a lengthy professional and personal relationship with Zofia Alexandra de Słubicka (née Kosińska), a wealthy and widowed Polish aristocrat whom she met in London. The two were inseparable friends by the end of 1912, and remained so for the next eighteen years. They lived together in Warsaw – perhaps, Cooper speculates, in a Boston marriage – and experienced the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the creation of an independent Poland together, only to have a bitter falling out for unknown reasons in the early 1930s. After the break with her patroness and friend, Crawford returned to Toronto but died just three years later. Despite repeated attempts throughout her career, Crawford was unable to translate her successes in Poland and Russia into an international opera career. Aside from one appearance in a semi-professional production of Rigoletto in Washington, DC, she never sang in an opera production in North America. She did sing with orchestras and in solo recitals in Canada, and to a limited extent in the USA, but the “dream of the prima donna” eluded her on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The  Great Depression, followed by the break with Zofia, left Crawford all but destitute. At the time of her sudden death from pneumonia in Toronto her career was effectively over and she was living on the edge of poverty. Her life was memorialized in numerous obituaries, but after her death Crawford quickly faded from memory. There were no recordings to preserve her voice for posterity, and no pupils to keep the memory of her career alive. The entry on Crawford in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada reduced her life story to a mere four sentences. If Cooper’s curiosity had not been aroused, Crawford would remain all but unknown, the details of her life forgotten. But now Cooper has done a remarkable job of constructing a detailed narrative of Crawford’s life and career from countless bits and pieces of information that she unearthed in Canada, Poland, Russia, and online. In addition to this excellent biography, she has also contributed a fine Wikipedia entry on the singer.

Cooper presents two biographies within the covers of this one book. A factual biography unfolds chronologically in the course of the book’s fifteen chapters. There is a certain amount of conjecture, but it is always presented as such – the evidence of what happened is given first, followed by a number of possible interpretations, often presented as questions. Each chapter is followed by what Cooper labels an “entr’acte,” and these taken together comprise a second biography – or rather, a charming biographical novel. The entr’acte chapters consist of vignettes that illustrate important events in Crawford’s life. Each one was inspired by an actual historical artifact – a newspaper clipping, a photograph, and so on – but Cooper uses these concrete objects as springboards for her invention, presenting imagined conversations and richly detailed descriptions to provide a more rounded, if somewhat speculative, character portrait. In the wrong hands, this approach could have fallen flat, but happily Cooper is just as adept at historical fiction as she is at biography. The entr’acte chapters are entirely engaging and, to this ear at least, strike just the right tone. They capture the manners, customs, and conversational idioms of a bygone era without being at all contrived or awkward.

The extensive research that Cooper undertook is detailed in the acknowledgements, notes, archival sources, and bibliographical materials listed at the end of the book. She got in touch with Crawford’s living relatives, including a nephew, since deceased, who recalled having met Bertha, and others who had photos and clippings to share. Research trips to Poland and Russia resulted in many helpful contacts and unearthed further archival sources, and the Ancestry website proved useful in detailing not only Crawford’s family lineage but also her transatlantic crossings, thanks to that source’s extensive passenger records. Each phase of Crawford’s life and career, from her church choir positions in Toronto to her Polish radio performances, is presented in compelling and impressive detail. After a twenty-five year career as a policy analyst in Ottawa, Cooper has found a new calling as a Canadian music researcher. I look forward with keen anticipation to her next project, whatever it may be.

Zadie Smith on Justin Bieber

Zadie Smith on Justin Bieber

I have not read anything by Zadie Smith. Not White Teeth, not On Beauty, not even Swing Time. Those are all on my wish list, but I have such a backlog of great books on my wish list that I may not get around to Zadie Smith for quite a while. But when I noticed that her most recent book, an essay collection titled Feel Free (released on 29 Jan. 2018), includes an essay on Justin Bieber … well, that couldn’t wait. I’m not a Belieber – at least, I don’t think I am – but I have taught a class on Bieber in years past as part of a unit on celebrity culture in my Music in North America course. So, curious to see what the British celebrity author had to say about the Canadian celebrity musician, I put a hold on Feel Free via the Toronto Public Library online catalogue. However I was number 36 on the waitlist and I couldn’t wait for my number to come up – it might be weeks from now, by which time this would all be such old news. I had to read the essay on Justin Bieber now. So I parted with $18.07 and bought the eBook. Was it worth it? Was that one essay worth $18.07?

On the whole I would say that yes, the essay – titled “Meet Justin Bieber!” – was worth the price of admission to the book. To start with, it is a new essay that has not been published elsewhere, unlike most of the other essays in the book. So this is not recycled Zadie Smith, it is original material. More to the point, it is an entertaining yet also thought provoking article. It dates from around 2013 (Smith is a bit vague on that point) which makes it ancient history as far as Bieber’s life story is concerned, but there are timeless elements to it that render its date of origin a moot point. I think the essay was likely written sometime after January 2014, when Bieber was charged with DUI in Florida, a fact that is alluded to obliquely in the essay. A very brief postscript was added more recently, perhaps in 2016.

Smith begins by ruminating on what it must be like to be Justin Bieber: “What does it feel like? Does it still feel like being a person? If you met Justin Bieber, would he be able to tell you?” Side note: I have not met Justin Bieber, but one of the students in my class a couple of years ago went to high school with Bieber in Stratford, and did not have nice things to say about him. But high school was a long time ago in Bieber years. I’m sure that Bieber is a very different person nowadays. Maybe, as Smith intimates, he no longer even feels like he is a person. To anticipate the philosophical thrust of Smith’s essay, it is possible that Bieber has transcended the Heideggerian Dasein to become a hyperreal Baudrilliardian simulacrum, leaving behind the mundane day-to-day reality that the rest of us inhabit. Or maybe he is just bummed out by being stalked by freaks on the sidewalk and is hiding out in his basement.

In an attempt to answer her provocative questions, Smith engages in a little thought experiment: she imagines a meeting between Justin Bieber and Martin Buber. It is an exercise in the “random input” technique of lateral thinking that Edward de Bono developed in 1968: you are stuck for an idea, so you pick two words that have nothing in common, try to figure out how to relate them to one another, and watch the creative sparks fly. But this is not quite a textbook example of that process, as the names were not chosen entirely at random: Smith observes in a footnote that Bieber and Buber are alternative spellings of the same German name. [That name, incidentally, means “beaver,” a singularly appropriate moniker for a Canadian celebrity musician.] This similarity of names has not gone unnoticed on Twitter, where an account that goes by the handle of “Justin Buber” offers tweets that combine “the pop stylings of Justin Bieber with the existential wisdom of philosopher Martin Buber”; it features an avatar that photoshops Buber’s bushy beard onto Bieber’s boyish face.

One point of contact that Smith discovers between Buber and Bieber is relationships: Bieber sings about them, Buber ruminates about them. Bieber’s relationships revolve around adolescent heteronormative mating rituals; Buber’s revolve around God. Smith observes that personal relationships range from the casual contact of a fan meet-and-greet (“I just touched Justin Bieber!”) to a life-changing experience in which one’s deepest essence is altered by another, e.g. holding your newborn child and watching her open her eyes for the first time.

Smith riffs for a while on Buber’s I and Thou and the two types of relationship that it explores: I-It and I-Thou. The former Smith likens to the meet-and-greet, in which the celebrity (Bieber) is an object to be approached, touched, and narrated about (on social media, inevitably); as Smith observes, it is “As if he [Bieber] were not a person at all, but a mountain range they had just climbed.” The characteristic communication mode of an I-It relationship is monologic; Smith cites Bieber’s 2012 single “Boyfriend” (700 million views on YouTube to date) by way of example. In this song, Bieber (who was only 18 years old at the time) is not looking for Buber’s ideal “living mutual relation” with the anonymous girlfriend; he is talking at her rather than with her. An I-Thou relationship, on the other hand, is dialogic, and Socrates is the model: the subject is continually in communication with others, “Recognizing the reality of other people – and having them recognize the reality of you.” If only Bieber could be more like Socrates… But this type of deep, meaningful connection is difficult to maintain – rather like Bieber’s on-again, off-again relationship with Selena Gomez, Smith wryly observes. Fans of Bieber will be happy to see that in the brief postscript Smith finds evidence in the album Purpose (2015) that the singer is moving from the superficial I-It mode to the deeper and more intimate I-Thou. He may yet transcend his Dasein to reach a new level of existence. Ever better, if current reports are to be believed, he might get back together with Selena Gomez.

Book Review

Book Review

Mark Miller. Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend. Toronto: the author, 2017. 280 pp., ill.

ISBN 978-1-77302-561-2 (hardcover, $34.04) / 978-1-77302-559-9 (paperback, $20.96) / 978-1-77302-560-5 (eBook, $6.99). All prices are quoted from the Indigo website as of 24 November 2017; the book is also available for slightly less from Amazon. Two excerpts from the book are on the Point of Departure website here, and Mark Wigmore’s interview with Miller about the book is on the JAZZ.FM91 website here.

This is the eleventh book by Mark Miller, the foremost chronicler of the jazz scene in Canada. It marks his first entry into the brave new world of self-publishing, assisted by the Victoria, B.C. based outfit Tellwell Talent. Miller was responsible not only for writing the text but also for assembling the rest of the book, including the discography, bibliography, index, and the photos (many of them taken by Miller himself), while Tellwell produced the physical (and digital) copies of the book and looks after its distribution. The book was released in May 2017 and has garnered a lot of attention and laudatory reviews, e.g. by Stuart Broomer in The Whole Note, Marc Chénard in La scena musicale, Raul da Gama on JazzdaGama, Peter Hum in the Ottawa Citizen, Ian McGillis in the Montreal Gazette, and Michael Morse in CAML Review, among others; there is also a superb and insightful appraisal by Paul Wells in Literary Review of Canada. The high praise and widespread notice are notable for a self-published book, but also well deserved: this is a fascinating tale, beautifully told, and an important contribution to Canadian jazz history.

Miller first wrote about Ranger in Jazz in Canada: Fourteen Lives (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), where Ranger shares a chapter with another Montreal-born jazz drummer, Guy Nadon, who died in 2016 at the age of 82; the chapter is aptly titled “Crazy”. That’s the word Ranger used to describe Nadon, meaning that he was singular, original, odd, and something of a rebel; the same could be said of Ranger himself. Ranger was seven years younger than Nadon, but his life ended earlier, and in a veil of mystery. Miller opens this book with Ranger’s enigmatic disappearance: “On or about November 2, 2000, Claude Ranger left his one-room apartment in a subsidized housing complex on 30th Avenue in Aldergrove [B.C.], never to return. He was 59. More than 16 years later, his fate is unknown; the investigation launched by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in early 2001 remains open” [p. 15]. At the end of the book, the narrative comes full circle with a return to the puzzling conclusion of Ranger’s life story: “The first days of November, overcast and cool, found Ranger once more in distress. His response to situations that were beyond bearing had always been to walk away. And so it was again” [p. 236]. In between these bookends, the story of Ranger’s life story unfolds, and in Miller’s hands it makes for compelling reading.

Miller deftly combines cogent summaries of international jazz idioms that were prevalent during Ranger’s career with insightful commentaries on the particular qualities of the local jazz scenes in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver, where the vast majority of Ranger’s performances took place. Ranger was based in Montreal until 1972, Toronto from 1972 to 1987, and finally Vancouver from 1987 on. He made only one trip to Europe, when he appeared with the Don Thompson quartet in the Netherlands in 1978, and there were only a few trips to the USA. His belated New York debut did not take place until 1990, when he was already 49 years old. There was a disastrous trip to Australia with the Moe Koffman Quintet in 1980. Miller’s account of the fiasco in Australia is characteristic of what makes him a great jazz historian. Multiple conflicting stories of what went wrong during the Australian trip and the circumstances under which Ranger quit the tour are in circulation; Miller deftly sifts the tall tales from the more reliable reports of those who were actually present, but notes that “even their versions of events differ from one another” [p. 133]. His patience and astuteness in piecing together this story are characteristic of his work on the book as a whole. Miller draws on three interviews he did with Ranger himself, one in 1978 and two in 1981, as well as interviews with over 100 other people. He neatly weaves in the voices and opinions of these many people who worked with, listened to, or studied with Ranger. Though not much inclined to teaching, Ranger did create a book of drum exercises (never published, but circulated widely), and via short casual lessons he left an imprint on the two finest Canadian jazz drummers of the next generation, Nick Fraser (in Ottawa) and Dylan van der Schyff (in Vancouver).

Ranger was born in Montreal in 1941 and took up the drums at the age of 13; he was already playing professionally by 1959 at the age of 18. He studied music theory with a Montreal violinist named Frank Mella (who is otherwise unknown to me). Another big influence was Brian Barley, a classically trained clarinet player who turned to jazz and played tenor sax and bass clarinet in a trio with Ranger and the bass player Michel Donato. The trio configuration suited Ranger well as, like Ornette Coleman, he didn’t like to play in ensembles that featured a pianist. Barley’s playing in turn was influenced by Sonny Rollins, but he also introduced Ranger to the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, and Ravel via recordings. Tragically, Barley died at the age of 28. But Donato and Ranger subsequently played in a trio with Rollins himself, in a Toronto gig that Ranger identified as one of the highlights of his career [p. 91].

One of the many great strengths of this book is Miller’s knack for evoking in words the essential qualities of music in performance. Here is his take on Ranger’s own composition Le Pingouin (The Penguin): “[it is] a variant blues whose descending, chromatic four-note bass vamp evoked a penguin’s waddle, with a rather jolly melody on top to heighten the comic effect and a series of short single-note glisses to suggest, perhaps, slips and slides on ice … Twice in the 10-minute performance … he played at length off that brief bass vamp, setting out a deft pattern of counter figures on snare, bass drum, hi-hat and ride cymbal in the manner of Max Roach, and then breaking into a brisk, galloping sort of swing irresistibly his own” [p. 61]. Le Pingouin was recorded for a CBC LP of the Brian Barley Trio in 1970 and reissued on CD in 1995; it is now available on iTunes. Other examples of Ranger’s playing are available online via YouTube and elsewhere. Miller’s discography lists over two dozen recordings featuring Ranger; most are no longer available, but in any case much of the notice that he garnered came from his live appearances, still remembered by those who heard them as spell binding performances.

Ranger comes across in Miller’s account as a single-minded, daring, inspired, but utterly uncompromising figure: a hard drinking, chain smoking guy with a strong streak of bad temper. He played drums, but impractically never learned to drive, and hence was reliant upon others to get his kit from gig to gig. At his best, he was a force to be reckoned with and capable of true musical greatness; at his worst, he would just go through the motions or even undermine his fellow musicians. As Miller memorably puts it, “there were no limits on what he was able to do – only on what he was willing to do” [p. 96]. Despite the fact that he has been compared to Elvin Jones, Coltrane’s drummer on A Love Supreme, or to Tony Williams, who joined the Miles Davis Quintet at the age of 17, Ranger was a true Canadian original.

Ranger could be devastated by setbacks that other musicians would take in their stride. Miller reports that he was “despondent” [p. 165] when his quintet did not win a competition that was part of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal in 1986, and quotes others as stating that he was “hurt deeply,” “totally depressed,” and “destroyed” [p. 199] after a single bad review in 1990 of the 12-piece Jade Orchestra, into which he had poured his energy during his early years in Vancouver. Music was everything to Ranger; he was passionately devoted to it at the expense of all else: a middle class existence, money, his family, friendships, teaching, indeed all other aspects of life. His playing matched his mood: if he was angry or upset about something, he would just walk away, even in the midst of a gig. As Miller notes, “it was a tribute of sorts to Ranger that Koffman, Greenwich and other bandleaders were prepared to cope with him at his worst in the perpetual hope that he might be at his best” [p. 132].

A Western tour in November 1991 with Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer, along with the noted US sax player Dewey Redman, was what Ranger termed “the zenith” of his career, and in particular one evening in Saskatoon: “Everything,” he said, “was just right” [p. 210]. Redman for his part later said that Ranger was the greatest drummer in the world, a comment that eventually made its way back to Ranger, who was understandably pleased. But within a couple of years of that zenith, Ranger was on welfare, trying to quit his various addictions, and diagnosed with a bipolar disorder that was treated with lithium and therapy. His last significant engagements were in 1995 and 1996 in Victoria, after which he played a duo recital with Dave Say on tenor sax in Nanaimo in May 1997. Sadly, he then sold his drums in the summer of 1997 to pay for dental work, and subsequently tried unsuccessfully to borrow them back for his last public appearance on June 28, 1998. He then quit music and may even have been homeless for a while; he was likely on welfare and thus not able to work for fear of losing his social assistance. After a couple of years on the skids, he finally went missing in November 2000.

The focus throughout this account is understandably trained with a laser-like intensity on Ranger. Miller seems to work in at least a mention of every single public appearance that Ranger gave in the course of his 40-year long career. Ranger’s personal relationships are covered a bit more sketchily. Suddenly in Chapter 11, half way through the book, a woman named Ali Karnick, a US casting director working in Toronto, is introduced; she and Ranger live together for four years (ca 1980) in her comfortable house and she saves his career, getting him Canada Council funding by writing up and submitting the application in 1982. But there is no mention of what had become of Ranger’s wife Denyse and their four daughters, who disappear from the narrative on p. 84. (Lani, the youngest daughter, is among those whom Miller interviewed for the book.) In Chapter 13 Ranger abruptly leaves Karnick to move in with Lili Wheatley, an artist who had expressed an interest in his music; she too disappears from his life in the early 1990s, “no longer able to abide his drinking” [p. 215]. In Vancouver he lives for a few years with Judith Yamada, introduced only as “a woman he had known from Montreal” [p. 215-16]. Ranger finally ends up alone in public housing by 2000, in Aldergrove, where he was to meet his untimely end.

It is likely that what Miller includes about Ranger’s personal life is all that is known, or all that those who knew him are willing to divulge. What remains is his recorded legacy – not, unfortunately, nearly extensive or representative enough, by all accounts – and the influence he exerted on other Canadian jazz musicians by his example and his forays into teaching. As Miller noted in a Facebook post, among those few truly legendary figures in Canadian jazz, “Ranger seems to live on most vividly in the collective imagination of the Canadian jazz community”. Thanks to this book, Miller has ensured that Ranger’s career and reputation will extend beyond that focused community and have both a broader reach and a more lasting impact.

Robin Elliott