Alex dresses up in a sweet black suit
for his Central High senior picture
holding his trumpet as if
he will raise it
like a silver night-blooming moonflower
to play “Sweet Georgia Brown” or “Almost Blue.”
Alex has sat in on jazz gigs in New Orleans,
San Francisco, D.C.
and Saint Paul.
He attends summer jazz camps, jazz competitions,
listens to Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra records.
He once ate ice cream
ate an apple
hopes there’ll be a car
wears a cologne with notes
of jazzy fragrance from a blue bottle.
When he shakes his silver ID bracelet
his own name flashes on one side,
Louis Armstrong on the other.
Alex, I ask, what is it with you and jazz?
If you have to ask, Mom, he says, quoting his hero,
you’ll never know.
“Jazz You’ll Never Know” by Margaret Hasse from Earth’s Appetite. © Nodin Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of English author Aldous Huxley (books by this author), born in Godalming, Surrey, in 1894. He was born into a family of intellectuals, writers, and scientists: his father was a poet and biographer; two of his brothers became respected biologists; and his grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a famous biologist and naturalist who received the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his defense of the theory of evolution. On his mother’s side, Huxley was related to the novelist Mary Humphry Ward, the poet Matthew Arnold, and famous educator Thomas Arnold. Even among these luminaries, Huxley was gifted, alert, and intelligent.
Huxley lost his mother to cancer when he was 14 years old. Two years later, when he was a student at Eton, he suffered an illness that left him almost completely blind. A blind man couldn’t be a scientist. A blind man couldn’t be a soldier, either, so Huxley stayed home while many of his peers went off to fight in World War I. Huxley had to rethink his career aspirations. He turned instead to literature, and studied at Oxford, where he met and befriended D.H. Lawrence. In 1916, Huxley published his first book — a collection of poems.
He married Maria Nys in 1919, and the couple traveled a lot during the early years of their marriage. In his book Jesting Pilate: An Intellectual Holiday (1926), Huxley wrote about the people and cultures they encountered on their travels. He liked the vitality and energy of the Americans they met, but he thought that energy was wasted on mindless pursuits. “Nowhere, perhaps, is there so little conversation [...] It is all movement and noise, like the water gurgling out of the bath — down the waste. Yes, down the waste.”
Huxley published four novels in the 1920s, including Crome Yellow (1921) and Point Counter Point (1928), as well as numerous essays, poems, plays, and six books of stories. And in 1931, he began work on a novel that he intended to be a light look at what the future might hold — a satiric response to the utopian novels of H.G. Wells. He wrote the book in four months. It was Brave New World (1932), and it ended up being a darker book than he’d planned. The book is set in London in the year 2540, a future where society functions like one of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. People are genetically engineered and mass-produced in hatcheries. They’re fed a steady diet of antidepressants, amusements, and sex to keep them complacent. When George Orwell’s dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four came out in 1948, people liked to compare the two and argue about which bleak future was more likely to happen. Huxley defended his vision, saying it would be easier to control people through pleasure than through fear.
It’s the birthday of playwright George Bernard Shaw (books by this author), born in Dublin (1856). He’s the author of dozens of plays, including Man and Superman (1905), Pygmalion (1912), and Saint Joan (1923). Shaw won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1925 and an Oscar in 1938 for his contribution to the film Pygmalion. He’s the only person in history to receive both the Nobel and an Oscar.
He’s considered to be the greatest English-language dramatist after Shakespeare. Even before he had written a masterpiece, Shaw was announcing this very comparison to people, and adding that he did some things in playwriting even better than Shakespeare did. Shaw knew all of the plays he had written by memory. He was also a prolific music critic and literary critic, and he’s highly quotable.
He said: “The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: That’s the essence of inhumanity.”
It’s the birthday of humorist Jean Shepherd (books by this author), born in Chicago, Illinois (1925). He’s remembered for the autobiographical stories he told on the radio about a boy named Ralph Parker growing up in Hohman, Indiana. One of his stories was made into the movie A Christmas Story (1983), which Shepherd narrated. It’s about a boy who wants a BB gun for Christmas, even though every adult in his life says that he’ll shoot his eye out. The stories he told on-air were always improvised, but he later wrote them down and published them in collections like In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash (1967) and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters (1972).
It’s the birthday of movie director Stanley Kubrick, born in New York City in 1928. His first big film was Spartacus in 1960. After that, Kubrick vowed never to make another film unless he had total artistic freedom — and he managed to keep that vow. His best-known films are Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; 2001: A Space Odyssey; A Clockwork Orange; and The Shining.