Fun with languages

Language, as in the study of a foreign language, is one of those things that fascinates me while also driving me absolutely bananas. I’ve studied several and struggle at pretty much all of them, but I enjoy learning about them and that’s why I sometimes note interesting stories about language here at this very English-language internet place. A couple of stories caught my attention this week that I thought might interest at least some of you.

From Al-Monitor, there’s the story of Oded Amit, a 70 year old Iraqi Jew fighting probably in vain to preserve Judeo-Iraqi Arabic. Historically, of course, there was a substantial Jewish population in modern-day Iraq, going all the way back to the Babylonian captivity (read the Bible), and Iraq was for centuries really, after the Romans destroyed the Temple, the center of the worldwide Jewish community. Iraq continued to contain a large Jewish community all the way up to the 20th century, when the rise of antisemitism and hostilities over the situation in Mandatory Palestine began to kick in. The formation of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli War made the situation for Jews throughout the Middle East untenable, and in the early 1950s tens of thousands of Iraqi Jews were airlifted to Israel. Another large group of Iraqi Jews left for Israel in the early 1970s (that’s when Amit’s family left), owing to harsh persecution after the Six Day War in 1967, and there’s been a steady trickle of Jews out of Iraq ever since. Some estimates in recent years put the number of Jews in Baghdad, which once had a relatively large Jewish population, in the single digits.

During the centuries in which there was a large Jewish community living in predominantly Arab Iraq, that community, as isolated communities do, developed its own language. Mostly Arabic but incorporating elements from Hebrew, Aramaic, Turkish, etc., it’s a unique tongue that’s probably going to disappear not long after the last of the Jews who fled Iraq in the 20th century passes on. Amit has been trying to preserve it by teaching it to young people in Israel, with emphasis on one of its more unique characteristics: Continue reading

Season’s Greetings!

With Santa headed our way and Hanukkah already started, let me wish you all a very Happy Holidays from our home to yours. I must especially thank, and yes this is a plug, everyone who has generously contributed to keeping this site afloat, via PayPal and/or Patreon. I literally couldn’t do this without you.

Although I have long since passed from lapsed Catholic into just “lapsed,” I love Christmas music. And as people who’ve been around long enough to remember the old “Saturday Night Tunes” feature will know, I also love jazz. So I have a particular soft spot for Christmas tunes from folks like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Nat King Cole. Last December I posted a YouTube video of Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song, but it had some weird thing happening at the beginning of the video–I can’t remember what it was but I remember it was weird–and anyway that video seems to have been taken down. Instead, I was just able to find a playlist of Cole singing Christmas songs, which is way better than whatever I posted last year. Enjoy! I’ll have a couple of other collections to share tomorrow.

The stockings are full, I’ve got a bread dough rising and panna cottas setting for dinner tomorrow, I’m trying to keep my dog from eating the cookies we left out for Santa, and once I finally wrap my wife’s gift I think it will be just about time to call it a night. Best wishes, and thanks for reading.

Today in Iranian history: the Shahnameh is completed (1010)

Obviously there are a lot of important works of literature that have been created over the years and across the many cultures of the world, so if I were to describe Abu’l-Qasim Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh as simply a great work of literature I would be doing it something of an injustice. It is a great work of literature, don’t get me wrong, but its importance goes far beyond the aesthetic. It could be argued, has been argued in fact, that this epic poem is responsible for saving Iranian civilization and the Persian language from extinction–or, at least, from being completely marginalized.

Which is not to say that Ferdowsi did those things all by himself. There’s no question that traditional Iranian culture was overwhelmed in the wake of the seventh century Arab conquests and the imposition of Islam throughout the lands that had previously either belonged to, or existed within the cultural orbit of, ancient Persia. The successive empires that ruled the region from Iraq in the west to modern Afghanistan in the east built a cultural powerhouse over the ~15 or so centuries they were around (8th century BCE to 7th century CE), but the Arab conquests didn’t just usher in a new ruling dynasty or a new military power–they brought an entirely new religion from an entirely foreign religious tradition.


A scene from a Mughal manuscript of the Shahnameh (Wikimedia)

Zoroastrianism, the dominant faith in the pre-Islamic Persian empires, had influenced Second Temple Judaism, and therefore had influenced the development of Islam, but it was not a part of the Abrahamic tradition. The new rulers worshiped God (Allah in Arabic, of course), not Ahura Mazda–though the two were conflated in the use of the Persian word khuda (“Lord”)–and they traced their ancestry back to Adam and Abraham, not Keyumars and Jamshid. They had an entirely different way of looking at the world and its history, one that couldn’t easily co-exist alongside the Zoroastrian version of events. And while there’s no evidence that early Muslims sought to forcibly convert Zoroastrians to their developing new faith (in fact, Zoroastrians were considered one of the legally–if not always actually–protected Peoples of the Book, like Christians and Jews), conversion happened nonetheless, either out of a genuine religious awakening or a practical awareness that, in order for one to thrive in an Islamic empire, it was necessary to embrace Islam.

So Iranian culture was subordinated, then ignored. Continue reading

Saturday Night Tunes: Roy and Diz


I feel like we’ve been covering a lot of saxophone music lately, so for a little change of pace here’s a sextet with two trumpets and no saxes. Dizzy Gillespie I assume doesn’t need any introduction, but some of you might not be as familiar with Roy Eldridge, which is a shame. Eldridge is best known for his swing-era career, when his high level of skill on the horn and the harmonic inventiveness in his improv made him kind of the trumpeting bridge between Louis Armstrong and Gillespie (although he was only about six years older than Gillespie, so that might be overstating things a little). He was one of the earliest jazz trumpeters to really explore the upper limits of the horn, for example. Because Armstrong and Gillespie are so famous, in comparison Eldridge unfortunately doesn’t get the attention he deserves, but he was an important figure in the development of jazz trumpeting.

Eldridge and Gillespie were very familiar with each other from the New York jazz scene, and Eldridge was constantly compared to Gillespie because of the similarities in their styles (even hearing them side by side it can sometimes be difficult to tell them apart), even though Eldridge had started his career before Gillespie did. It was only natural that they’d be paired together on an album. The 1954 session that produced Roy and Diz also produced enough material for a second album, called, um, Roy and Diz volume 2. I’m working off of my CD copy, which contains both albums, for a total of nine tracks, but here we’ll stick to the first album only (a more manageable five tracks). Along with Eldridge and Gillespie on trumpet and the occasional vocals, the album includes Herb Ellis on guitar, Oscar Peterson on piano, Ray Brown on bass, and Louis Bellson on drums.

First up is “I’ve Found a New Baby,” a standard written by Jack Palmer and Spencer Williams in the 1920s. It starts out rhythmically before shifting into a quick bop feel for the solos, with the two trading fours towards the end:

“I Can’t Get Started” is a ballad written by Vernon Duke in the 1930s. Eldridge (I’m pretty sure) takes the melody and first solo while Gillespie plays the tune out, with a Peterson piano solo in the middle:

Eldridge and Gillespie wrote “Trumpet Blues,” which is–brace yourselves–a blues. For trumpets. They helpfully stay in different mutes for this one: Gillespie is in the rougher-sounding cup mute, Eldridge in the mellower Harmon mute. The highlight is obviously the trumpet battle, the second one of the album so far, in the second half of the tune:

“Algo Bueno” is Gillespie’s tune and again features some wonderful trading between the two (this time Gillespie is in the Harmon mute and Eldridge in the cup mute) in the tune’s second half:

Last up is “Pretty Eyed Baby,” a standard written by Mary Lou Williams, Snub Mosley, and William Luther Johnson. This is a vocal showcase for both trumpeters. First Eldridge, then Gillespie, take scat solos backed by the other’s trumpet noodling. They get into another trumpet battle toward the end though:

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Saturday Night Tunes: What Is There to Say?

Friends, without making this All About Me, I’m scrambling right now. I forgot to put this in the queue before I left town, and I’ve been stymied in most of my efforts to grab a bit of internet while I’ve been away, which is why you’ve gotten a total of one (1) post since Wednesday that I hadn’t already scheduled before I left. Sorry. My problems also mean that we’re going to go straight to the music this evening without a lot of chatter.

Baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan is perhaps best known for his collaboration with Miles Davis on Birth of the Cool, but he did some very interesting piano-less quartet work throughout the 1950s, of which 1959’s What Is There to Say? is the last. Good name for the last album in a series, if you ask me. I decided on this one because tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, and this album includes one of the coolest renditions of the overplayed “My Funny Valentine” that you’ll ever hear, featuring Art Farmer on trumpet. So it seemed appropriate.

Mulligan was kind of a specialist at recording ultra-cool versions of this one particular tune, featuring whatever trumpet player he happened to be collaborating with at that time. This 1952 version, featuring Chet Baker on trumpet, is actually in the Library of Congress for being so awesome (that’s a technical term). I like it slightly better than the version on this album, but they’re both quite good (and similar in a lot of respects):

Farmer and Mulligan are joined by Bill Crow on bass and Dave Bailey on drums. Now, before I lose my connection again and/or drive myself crazy in some other technology-related way, here’s the full album:

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Saturday Night Tunes: Boss Tenors

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Although the premise isn’t all that different from Tenor Madness, the 1956 Sonny Rollins album that featured a sax duel between Rollins and John Coltrane on the title track, 1961’s Boss Tenors is actually more of a collaboration than a competition. The boss tenors in question, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, were friends and had even, according to, already co-led a group several years earlier. But it’s a fun album driven by the strengths of the two saxophonists.

I sometimes think of Sonny Stitt (d. 1982) as the Joe Frazier to Charlie Parker’s Muhammad Ali (ask your parents grandparents). If there hadn’t been a Muhammad Ali, people today might think of Frazier as the greatest heavyweight of all time. Similarly, if there hadn’t been a Charlie Parker, it might have been Sonny Stitt who was credited with inventing bebop and changing jazz forever. People who hear Stitt’s earlier alto work after already being familiar with Parker often assume that Stitt was copying Parker’s sound and style, and there is a pretty strong resemblance. But the story goes that Parker and Stitt met each other in 1943 for the first time and Stitt already sounded uncannily like Parker, because that’s just the way he played. Stitt started playing more tenor in the late 1940s, then made tenor his primary horn after doing time in prison for selling drugs, partly to lessen the comparisons with Parker.

Gene Ammons (d. 1974) was always a tenor player, one of the key figures in the heavily blues and R&B-inflected “Chicago style” of tenor playing and a leader in the soul jazz movement. While he was technically proficient and quite capable of playing in the bebop style, Ammons is known more for his big, expressive tone and his ability to emote through his music.

In addition to the two leads, Boss Tenors features John Houston on piano, Buster Williams on bass, and George Brown on drums.

“Blues Up and Down” kicked off the LP version of this album. Anybody who has the Verve CD, like I do, will wonder why the first track is “There Is No Greater Love.” That’s because, for some reason, the CD starts with side 2 of the record. “There Is No Greater Love” is a fine tune but a lousy opener for this particular album, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, so we’re starting with “Blues Up and Down” the way the LP did. Stitt and Ammons wrote this one together, a fast blues that serves mostly as a vehicle for the tenor cutting contest that had to be on this album somewhere:

Next up is “Counter Clockwise,” a slower (except in the double-time sections), soulful showcase for Williams’s meaty walking bass line:

The Isham Jones standard “There Is No Greater Love” opened side 2 of the LP (per the liner notes) but it’s the first track on my CD. The thing is, Stitt is on alto for this one, which is an extremely odd choice for kicking off an album called Boss Tenors, so I’ve decided to go by the LP order. “No Greater Love” is usually covered as a ballad, but here it gets a medium-tempo treatment. The call-and-response stuff that Stitt and Ammons get into towards the end is the highlight:

The melody of “The One Before This,” written by Ammons, might be the simplest one ever written (you’ll see), but it leads into some great solos from Ammons, Stitt, Houston, and Williams:

I never get tired of hearing covers of “Autumn Leaves,” the Joseph Kosma classic, even though it’s one of the most exhaustively covered tunes in jazz history. It’s a great choice to close the album. Here Stitt and Ammons trade bars in both the opening and closing statements of the melody, which makes for a cool effect:


Saturday Night Tunes: Free for All


It’s been a while since we covered a Jazz Messengers album around here, which is amazing considering how prolific they were. Free for All was recorded in 1964, with a lineup of Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Curtis Fuller on trombone, Wayne Shorter on tenor sax, Cedar Walton on piano, and Reggie Workman on bass, plus leader Art Blakey of course. That is a heavyweight sextet, and while nothing here is necessarily breaking any new ground in jazz, it’s all pretty damn good.

The title track, written by Shorter, is really a wonderful tune, one of the quintessential Jazz Messengers-style tracks. As the title suggests, it starts to feel like free jazz, or at least as close to free jazz as the ultra-hard bop Messengers were going to get. The highlight is Hubbard’s trumpet solo leading into Blakey’s drum solo:

The soulful “Hammer Head,” also written by Shorter, is the Jazz Messengers in their wheelhouse. Fuller’s solo stands out to me, although I am a huge fan of jazz trombone and it’s actually rarer to encounter than you’d think, so maybe that’s why I appreciate it here so much.

Freddie Hubbard wrote “The Core” as a dedication to the Chicago-based Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of the country’s largest civil rights organization. But the title works on two levels–as Hubbard says in the liner notes, “I think we got at some of the core of jazz–the basic feelings and rhythms that are at the foundation of the music.” It’s a toss up whether this or “Free for All” is the best tune on the album:

“Pensativa” is the album’s one cover. Originally written by bossa nova pianist and composer Clare Fischer in 1962, it was arranged for this group by Hubbard after he’d heard it performed live. It ends this otherwise pretty intense album on a light note:

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