Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My man Herbie

So let's talk about my man Herbie.

When Herbie Hancock stepped up to the podium and won this year's grammy for album of the year, lots of hip-hoppers everywhere were scratching their heads in a collective "huh"?

They had no idea  that the man they were ogling was one of the most versatile, innovative and important musicians of the 2oth century.  A virtual musical chameleon, My man Herbie was a 7-year old piano prodigy,
soloing with the Chicago Symphony at age 11.

But what makes Herbie one of the baddest cats in all jazz--indeed all of recorded music-- is that he was one of the first musicians to bring electronic instruments up front on major labels and to play them with real human dexterity and warmth.

A devout SGI Buddhist, He brought legitimacy to machines because he's a brilliant acoustic pianist and composer who worked with Miles Davis for years in one of his greatest groups, as well as having recorded many of his own influential and classic solo recordings.

He took a cue from his former employer in the late sixties forming a real jazz funk outfit called Headhunters that outsold any jazz record up until that time, later he did the same damn thing again with the hip-hop influenced Rockit, which became an MTV favorite.

He continues to bounces back and forth between serious jazz  recordings, electronic outings and star studded solo records. 
The Grammy he won for River: The Joni Letters barely scratches the surface of this man's accomplishments, but maybe now he'll get a little more respect from those few who don't already know what time it is. 

Friday, July 25, 2008


The Leopard has been thinking lately about that wonderful art form that I've devoted so much of my life to: Jazz.

Not only as a once near fanatical collector and lover of the music, but also it's been a great inspiration to me in almost all facets of my life. For years, I worked for a large institution devoted to jazz; I've written about jazz as a reviewer, and much of my visual art has been connected to the music.

The obsession started as just being someone who simply enjoyed the music. A friend of mine who was a bit more sophisticated than me at the time discovered it first, and we would listen to Miles Davis and Charles Mingus records in his house, taking it all in, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. In addition to the music itself, I enjoyed the visual presentation. The wonderful Blue Note album covers, for example, with their gorgeous introspective photos of the artists which suggested the very epitome of cool. It was one of my greatest inspirations and what probably eventually led me to become a designer.

But the thing that I think I was most attracted to was the idea of creating art with freedom of expression that also translated into a profession--something that people paid to see that was almost as challenging to listen to as to create. I love Jazziz magazine's description, "Art for your ears".

The basis of jazz , improvisation, always held interest to me. I remember digging the Kind of Blue album for the first time, hearing each soloist play off ideas from the melody line of the tune All Blues and thinking about the infinite possibilities each musician could extend their musical imagination within the framework of the tune.

It did more than open my mind up musically, but also as an artist and a creative person. You can build up a traditional framework and playing within the confine of the song, or you can even go further, like latter day John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler, and have no boundaries at all; you could veer off into the further reaches of space, without a net. Of course, this can make things challenging for the listener, but those who stick around can be rewarded. That's where jazz I think gets the reputation as "challenging" or "difficult" music. I personally think it's more about listening a little harder and opening yourself up a little.

With the decline compact discs, I fear that in the digital internet landscape jazz may evaporate and the many young up-and-comers won't have the backing of record companies to promote them (honestly though, the truth is many of the major companies had dropped their jazz divisions before the decline of the CD). People will have to seek it out, even for the great masters like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. It will take some doing with the massive amount of information floating around, to keep the music going.

When It Comes, It Comes

Many years ago, The Leopard was at a wedding party where I met the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Michael Chabon. He had just written his first published novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh. (Since that time, he's gone on to write several acclaimed books such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay and The Wonder Boys, among others).

I was introduced to him by the host, and I was fascinated by his recent status. His book had been well-received. He seemed a quiet, low key personality. Knowing what a daunting task it is to write a novel, I asked him if he ever had writer's block. He seemed taken aback by this. He just sort of looked me up and down, put down his glass, said "no", and walked away. I guessed that I must have hit a nerve.

Later, my friend who had invited me to the party informed me that Chabon told the host he was very angry and insulted by my question. Later, my friend and the host became estranged as a result of this. For years, I thought Chabon had overreacted, especially since he ended up being pretty prolific.

But it has taken me this long to really understand what it takes to do what Chabon does, that is, create a piece of art. Unfortunately, having a little bit of talent alone doesn't account for much. It's motivation and ideas that really clinch it.

The director David Lynch says that ideas are like fish; sometimes it's easy to catch one. Others, you could sit a long, long time and still not get a bite. One thing I would add to that is as you get older, the fish get harder and harder to catch. What used to come so easily seems more precious.

I love to sit down and draw something, but I find so little time that I always feel that I have to have a real purpose or it's not worth the time. I'm beginning to realize now that that's a bad idea; you just have to just do your thing when the mood strikes you. If you wait for the big idea, you could end up like the great writer Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Man, h
is first and only novel. He received remarkable accolades and the National Book Award in 1953. He then spent the rest of his life trying to write something equally as brilliant. When he died in 1994, strewn around in his study were thousands of pages of rewrites of an unpublished novel. He just thought it none of it was good enough.

So I've learned to just do it. The Big Idea? Well, when it comes, it comes.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight geek-out

I remember as a kid of fourteen & fifteen being totally immersed in the world of superhero, war, horror, even romance comic books. I would get lost in those worlds. When I was reading a really well produced comic with terrific art and a great story, it was as real to me as any good novel, TV show, or film.

My pals and I used to fantasize what it would be like if the movies would get it right, not with the usual "pow/bam" pop art type treatment like on the old 6o's Batman TV show, but with all the nuances and subtleties that the best creators had been putting into the medium for years .

The last time the film industry really nailed it was Spider-man 2, which had to have been created by geeks: not only there were subtle references to the comics sprinkled throughout the film, but also it held the true drama of the original strip, the emotion. It's something that only a true fan (i.e. the director Sam Raimi) would recognize and appreciate.

Now, having seen The Dark Knight, I know there are even more people out there who know how to get it right. Not just in look and mood, but that one element which is always left out when discussing comic books: intelligence.

The screenplay for this film is probably the most ambitious ever for a film of this type.   It goes well beyond its pulp origins into Shakesperean proportions--without the pretense.

I won't go into the details of the story here, because The Leopard knows almost half the world has already gone out and seen it--and many of us will again--but suffice to say the film is terrific, almost flawless. Heath Ledger's rendering of The Joker does not disappoint. It has a sly, subtle razor edge that no one portraying the character has so far explored.  Christian Bale, now comfortable in his bat skin, is more than up to the task of handling the script's new found complexities.  The moral compass of the piece is  the fine, layered work of Aaron Eckhart, the most perfect Two Face one could imagine.  All the actors--Maggie Gyllenhaal, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine--are uniformly inspired, and are all given enough screen time to shine.

But the true hero for me of  The Dark Knight is director Christopher Nolan--his balance of comic book legend,  deep understanding of the possibilities of cinema, and an acute sense of  drama has created one of the very best superhero movies ever made. 

Sunday, July 20, 2008

My Batman

As a preface to a review the Leopard will be posting soon on the Dark Knight movie, here's a a little background on my personal relationship with the character.

I love Batman. The first drawings I ever did were of him. One of the fondest memories I have are when I was about 8 or 9 years old taking the Staten Island Ferry with my father. In the ferry station, they would have these enormous newsstands, and there was always a Superman or Batman comic book or two. I'd always pick Batman, of course. For some reason his image always appealed to me. I related to him somehow. Maybe it was his outsider status. I just thought there was just something beautiful about him.

Although I haven't really read many new issues in years because of the massive glut of material that's produced, but I've gotten my kids into him, and I'll sometimes drop by comic stores to see what's been done with the character. It's one of the few constants of my life.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


I heard something very disturbing a few weeks ago, but what was especially disturbing about it was how and when I found out.

I was recently reading an interview with a well known jazz musician,  who casually mentioned that Alice Coltrane was dead. I almost dropped the magazine.

Also known by her Hindu name Turiyasangitananda, Coltrane was a brilliant pianist as well as harpist and composer. She died January 14th of last year at the age of 69.  

Because she was not quite a mainstream household name on the level of her legendary husband, this was not widely reported.  To me this oversight was not just a reflection of the lack of interest in serious artists and culture in America, but subtle racism.  Alice Coltrane was Yoko to John Coltrane's well, John.   He wrote one of his seminal works, A Love Supreme while living with her, and she played in his last groundbreaking band for several years, taking the seat away from the great pianist McCoy Tyner with her own brand of lyricism. After her husband' s death, she created many wonderful albums of her own, Including Journey To Satchidanada and Monastic Trio, combining her unique piano with ethereal harp playing, along with superb musicians like Pharoah Sanders and Rashied Ali.
She made her last album, Translinear Light in 2005 with her son Ravi.

An excellent composer and improvisor, and a longtime devotee of Hinduism,  and a lover of peace throughout the world, she will be missed.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

My Job World Part 2

Around 1994, I began to learn some of the basic design programs which were still coming into fashion: Pagemaker, Photoshop, Freehand and a little later, Quark.

The Leopard's background has mostly been in drawing, so it took a little getting used to a technological mindset. Soon, I had a little experience working on small publications, but for the most part, I was kinda of figuring things out as I went along. My first real gig as a designer was at a small magazine called Pizza Today in Indiana.

Yup, a magazine solely about-- pizza. And yes, before you ask, The Leopard did get a lot of free pizza. The whole enterprise was really a promotional device for the owner, who put on a huge Pizza Expo every year for vendors catering to the business. Apparently, this was extremely lucrative and made him a millionaire. But the magazine was legit. It was bi-monthly, and there was a full staff. The thing I remember the most was sitting around in an editorial meetings discussing stories about pizza. How they come up with them issue after issue, I'll never know.

After leaving there, I took a gig at a tiny minority-owned ad agency. It was run by a former football player who didn't really have much experience but a lot of "heart". He used to call me B.O.P. (Big Ol' Pimp) because I drove around in a late 70's customized van at the time that an uncle gave me--a Leopardmobile if you will. There were numerous cash flow problems at the agency. Sometimes, we didn't get paid at all. Eventually, he fired the whole lot of us except for one guy. But I learned a lot while I was there about the business.

But boy oh boy, did I have learn the hard way.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Summer Movie Mini-Reviews 1

Will Smith, Jason Bateman
I loved the premise of this film. What if a superhero was not a nice guy but a drunk, and a coke snorter? What if he's a fuck-up and doesn't care about anyone but himself ? What if he's homeless, imperfect, a jerk? What if he's black?

Being life-long comic book fan, it sounds like a breath of fresh air. But a movie is more than one original idea, charismatic stars, an abundance of special effects. Hancock works at times and sometimes not. Despite the innovations in the script, the screenplay occasionally veers into typical Hollywood superhero movie cliches in the second half, which makes what could have been a great movie into merely a fine one.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Ron Perlman, Selma Blair
Though the first Hellboy worked very well as terrific superhero movie, nicely imagined by the thoughtful auteur Guillermo Del Toro, This picture is the rarest of the rarest, a sequel that outdoes the original. Now that all the origin business has been taken care of, we plunge directly into the story, which is a monster fest: wonderful, outrageously imagined monsters and beasties, each one more frightening and strangely beautiful than the last. The story is a standard Hobbit-like battle of good vs. evil, So it doesn't matter much, but the film itself is a magical feast for the eyes and also unexpectedly funny and tender.

Chapter 27
Jared Leto, Linsday Lohan
Pointless. This plodding, glacially challenged snore fest is borderline offensive: a minute by minute account of the days leading up to the murder of John Lennon. Leto too effectively plays Mark David Chapman, a self absorbed creep who at first is enamored with the formal Beatle, and then through contrived circumstances, decides to gun him down. Lennon himself is a mere shadow. The film attempts to depict this diseased killer's state of mind. Personally, I was much more interested in Lennon's state of mind just before this asshole shot him. This movie rewards him with just what he wanted: immortality, just like his former hero. He doesn't deserve it.

The Incredible Hulk
Edward Norton, William Hurt
Of the two Marvel comics vehicles this summer, this is the weaker one. The formula is in place: A-List actors in an action-filled popcorn movie. The first half, depicting Norton as the eternally suffering Bruce Banner in South America, desperately learning how to control his anger which could lead to freeing the monster inside him is fun and absorbing. Norton does a nice job humanizing the proceedings. But almost the instant when he shows up stateside in the second half, the CGI generated Hulk steals the show, along with endless gunfire, explosions and even uglier monsters for Hulk to smash. Too bad, because they really had something there for a minute.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Fair Fourth

Another July 4th bites the dust. My two sons and I were trying to avoid the usual crush of crowds in NY, and decided to view the Independence day fireworks from another vantage point: the New Jersey State Fair.

Do you remember the State Fairs of your youth? I do. Stinky affairs. My family would go to the south each summer during vacation to visit relatives and inevitably visit the farm animals, lame rides, overly expensive carnival games and freak shows. My family never had much money, so my main experience was simply passing by stalls, looking at prize winning pigs, blue ribbon roosters and the like, and yes, experiencing that darn smell. The thing I remember the most were the tiny cots in between the animal stalls where the farmers and their families slept. If you got to the fair early enough, as you checked out the animals, you'd still see little Jimmy snoring next to his families' prize cow. I always assumed that the reason for this was that they simply couldn't afford accommodations once they came to the fair to show off of their livestock, but it didn't seem sad to me. It seemed touching.

The New Jersey Fair seemed different; all I saw were cheap rides. But the kids and the Leopard had great fun despite the cheesy surroundings.

One attraction was for .50 you could view the world's smallest horse. It was on a platform surrounded by bales of hay. I paid my money and walked up the stairs to a pit, and down there was a small pony. It was indeed disconcertingly small but not shockingly so, which is what the exaggerated posters surrounding the display suggested. It was standing, staring blankly into space, while spectators dropped loose straws of hay on his head.

As I was leaving the exhibit, I was asked what I thought of what I saw and all I could say was "Kinda sad". We all grasped hands and continued to stroll, checking out the crowds, the lights, the sights and the sounds. Sure enough, here was another display, "World's Largest Horse". I found myself digging immediately into my pocket for loose change.

That's what fairs are about.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Job Search Goes On

Being a freelance designer can be a lonely and frustrating experience. I consider myself to be one of those type of people who prefers to be an employee, sticking around a company for years and possibly moving up in the ranks.

The order of the day in my business, and I gather in in the whole corporate world---is freelance. It's cheaper--no benefits, and you can fire someone for any reason when you're done with them with no legal repercussions.

The Leopard has worked at well known places for up to 6-8 months as freelancer and then told the project has ended with no ceremony. I usually work longer than is initially projected, but it sucks. You have to be a wizard of economizing in order to stay on your bills--they're still consistent even if your job isn't.

I just got off a freelancing job at a prominent advertising agency. I was really happy and it seemed like things were turning around. I was told they wanted to keep me on as a freelancer for month and if I did well, they'd bring me on as a staffer.

Well, the month went by and I was praised for my work, but lo and behold, the client was having internal problems and cut their budget on the project.--They couldn't bring me on.
So now I'm back to pounding the pavement.

I've been fortunate, I know, that I've been able to work at all. But if this is the way things will be looking in the future, It's gonna be a long summer.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Parking Blues

Much has already been written about the ungodly parking situation in New York,  but because of my current mood, I'll add to the glut.

The Leopard has paid over $1000 to the city and had my car towed twice in the last two years. Why? Because a sign wasn't clearly marked; because I got out to my car at 8:30 in the morning a moment too late; because I was two inches closer to a fireplug then the law allows. 

Now most people say that you shouldn't have a car in New York, anyway. True. 
But I actually live in New Jersey and I drive into the city only occasionally; and even then, I get zapped.

The only way I can get around things is to drive around the neighborhoods from 20 to 40 minutes until I can catch a break. Often this means squeezing into a super tight space, waiting for some slow poke to move out of a space, or lining up on the opposite of the street 
and waiting for an additional hour until a space is free. 

I once worked with the great caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. He was 99 years old at the time (He died a year later). He was famous for his dead-on illustrations of Broadway stars and celebrities for the New York Times. He lived in NY most of his life and as part of his job, he went to a play almost every night. 
He drove around the city in this Gi-normous vintage Cadillac.  
He once told me that in all his  years, he always found a space right near the theater he was attending.

That's what I call some bitchin' car karma.