If life's such a cabaret and cabaret's such a life, what is Wynne Alexander bitching about with these sniping new tunes and this book about civil unrest and protest pop? That's just me ribbing the Philadelphia pianist, composer and singer whose ebullience is outdone only by her effusion. Alexander loves the give-and-take. "I'll wear my best gloves," she says, but I'm not sure if she's talking white opera ones. That is, if she doesn't mean boxing mitts.
That's just me ribbing the Philadelphia pianist, composer and singer whose ebullience is outdone only by her effusion. Alexander loves the give-and-take. "I'll wear my best gloves," she says, but I'm not sure if she's talking white opera ones. That is, if she doesn't mean boxing mitts.
She might; the woman recorded the potently bluesy, rhythmically dynamic new Take Back the Night and penned the historically rich new Get It from the Drums: A History of Protest and Protest Songs of the 1960s and '70s.
Alexander was a teen reporter at WDAS, the station her father, Robert Klein, general managed and her grandfather, Max Leon, owned between 1951 — he turned it FM in 1959 — and 1979.
Leon, a Polish immigrant, made the station into "the voice of the black community"; hired Georgie Woods, Ed Bradley and Jocko Henderson; helped feed needy families; and was an all-around pursuant of civil rights and justice.
"My grandparents were doers; my father and mother, too — not always the most popular causes but always ultimately correct and humane," says Alexander. She won't specify what year it was when she was hired, but starting age 18, Alexander interviewed Coretta Scott King, Muhammad Ali and Mattie Humphrey and found herself in the line of live fire — from guns, from wrong-headed bigots — more than a few times.
"Bob and Max had to convince corporate America and corporate Philadelphia that courting and serving the black community was in their white asses' best interest. Dad and my grandfather put their lives and livelihoods on the line to trailblaze in the area of civil rights from the Dr. King/Malcolm X connection to lobbying Chevrolet to buy ads that Vic Potamkin was paying for all by himself."
Alexander's grateful to be part of that history, sensitivity and strength. Whether from WDAS or her family ("same thing"), she learned socio-consciousness on the front lines. "I always thought of WDAS as my father's oldest child — my older brother, really — and we fought every good fight there was from 1951 to 1979."
Their ideals were the best role models for how to be in a righteous fight. She quickly likens that ideal to her music — proud of her precocious nature as a particularly young player. "When I was 3, I told everyone I'd be an opera singer, then realized the conductor had it better, and by 4 that was my goal. I still feel that way, only now I write the music I'll conduct."
That indignant righteousness brought her not only to write Get It from the Drums, but get artists such as Pete Seeger, 2Pac, Janis Ian and Queen Latifah to allow Alexander to reprint their lyrics and press those songs onto an accompanying CD for free. That's because the package is a teaching tool whose idea was put forth by Dennis Creedon of the Office of Creative and Performing Arts from the Philadelphia School District. Alexander didn't want to do it when Creedon asked her. Then she remembered her teacher/grandmother getting in trouble after bringing a Temptations record into the classroom. "She noticed no matter how poorly the kids were doing with their grades, they always knew the music and lyrics to very sophisticated R&B songs." She used the lyrics to teach students spelling and vocabulary. And there was a stink from the school district. "But she was totally right and now they use these methods everywhere." So Alexander did the book to avenge her grandmother and put music like Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" in classroom settings, because kids forget that Dr. King isn't just a stamp and a day off from school. "They don't remember the civil rights movement — that people were dying not too long ago, trying to make sure everyone could vote the same way, sit at the same lunch counters and make the same money."
Alexander based the grand orchestral feel and wildly enhanced rhythms of Take Back the Night on what she sees as the righteous notion of re-engaging fans of jazz and classical music left cold by the concert halls' glut of atonal sounds. "It is not embraceable. It is not moving. Not only do I want to take back the night in the political arena — I want to do so in those halls."
Inspired by Gershwin, Ellington and Armstrong, Take Back the Night is but a bit denser and darker than its predecessor, Knowing Love by Its Absence. With hints of Marlene Dietrich, Bryan Ferry and Al Green in her voice and a sentimentality lacking in all things saccharine, the new one is hard, classically tinged, boisterous cabaret-blues that never lacks in divine elegance, bittersweet smarm, grit or swing. There're sambas, too. And lyrically, there's more hypocrisy within TBtN to be dealt with than a bag of Dick Cheneys — sometimes regarding love ("Nightwood"), sometimes politics ("Problems in the Land"), sometimes both at once. Like the fury that led to "Didn't You Say You Love Me":
"Some romantic hypocrisy yet another impostor had pulled. Then I realized they're just reflecting the hypocrisy in our saturated-fat society. All sizzle, no steak." Then she got to thinking about the media fascinations with body image, bodily functions and sex, too. "It's the de-romanticizing of romance," she says with disgust. She added all those elements of spite together. "I simmered and served. ... Stewed, too."
Indeed. Reminds me of the line in The Wild One where someone asks Brando's character, "What're you rebelling against?" and he answers, "Whaddya got?" I ask Alexander the same question.
"How much time do you have?"