Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Duke visits Banning Street

On this day, in 1899, Duke Ellington was born in Washington DC. His is one of the biggest names in jazz, and indeed American music as a whole. In June 1946, at the height of his commercial and creative success, Duke Ellington and his band performed at the Winnipeg Auditorium on Vaughan Street. Tickets for that show were $1.65. (Calulated for inflation, that is $20.03 in today's dollars. You can barely see a mediocre Canadian mall-punk bands at the Garrick Theatre for $20 these days, let alone one of the biggest names in popular music at the city's biggest indoor venue. Clearly, today's concert-goers are being robbed at the ticket booths.)

While thousands of Winnipeg jazz fans got to dance to The Duke and his band performing "It Don't Mean a Thing" and "Sophisticated Lady" at the Auditorium that Saturday night in '46, one West End kid got an even bigger thrill. As the Tribune reported the following Monday:
"Duke Ellington made a dream come true for a local colored lad Saturday night. Ever since he can remember, Omer Williams, 17-year-old Negro composer-pianist, has wanted to shake the Duke's hand. The Duke heard of this lad and his exceptional musical abilities and asked for Omer to visit his dressing room at the Ampetheatre.
Duke didn't just shake Omer's hand. After his concert and dance he went to Omer's home on Banning st. There he jammed on the home piano with Omer and ate a large meal with the Williams family.
The Duke was interested in young Omer. He smiled broadly when told Omer had written more than 75 numbers of his own. Omer said that he wrote his first at fifteen.
"Why, boy, that's how old I was when I did my first," Duke Ellington said.

Duke Ellington, with Williams

The next weekend, Gene Krupa, the legendary jazz drummer performed two nights at the Auditorium. Tickets were, again, $1.65.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lipstick Remover

Graffiti has existed on city walls for as long as cities themselves have. In London, graffiti has flourished in the city's streets, lanes, and courtyards, since the days of Julius Ceasar, and has survived to the present day, where the city's best writers command high prices at art shows and auctions. Most famous of all London contemporary street artists, is Banksy, who recently had one of his most famous works painted over by Transport for London employees. Link.

Street art, by its unsanctioned nature, is subject to the ebbs and flows of cities. Like its creators, street art is migratory, existing where it does according to the geo-economic margins of cities. Number eleven Spring Street, one of the last boarded up buildings in Manhattan's increasingly posh NoLiTa neighborhoods, was for years a magnet for street artists, and covered in their work. When the inevitable happened--the building converted to luxery condos--the years of art was removed from the facade. While it was a loss of a landmark of the art world, and of a minor New York City tourist attraction, the artists and their art will just move somewhere else. There will be another 11 Spring Street, maybe in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or New Jersey, to the next abandoned facades in economically abandoned neighborhoods. (Though great street art can still be found among the boutiques, galleries, and cafes of fully the gentrified NoLiTa, SoHo, East and West Village neighborhoods.)

Unlike 11 Spring St., Banksy's work at London's Old Street tube station was lost not to gentrification, but to a simple fear of urbanism and art, carried out by a couple of drones who probably didn't know any better, their mandate dictated to them by their anti-urban, philistinian employers.
Despite the artist's international popularity, TfL says that removing the artwork will make London "a safer and more pleasant place for passengers" as graffiti "encourages crime".
Meanwhile, outside the minds of transport officialdom, and in the real world, Banksy's piece was a tourist draw according to a nearby shopkeeper, and was assessed to be valued at £300,000.

£300,000 works itself out to about $674,000 in Canadian dollars--which is about the same amount of money the City of Winnipeg spends on anti-graffiti measures a year. The City would be outbid at Sotheby's auction. I'm sure Transport for London would, too.

While it makes headlines around the world (I first read of this story in the Globe and Mail last Saturday) when London removes celebrated street art, here in Commonwealth cities like Winnipeg, it's business as usual.
"If the vandal does not pay and accrues several tickets, he or she could face community service or even jail time," BIZ executive director Stefano Grande wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to Mayor Sam Katz...
The letter stated the graffiti causes entrepreneurs to suffer, threatens housing values and hurts the city's reputation...


So deep are the anti-graffiti sentiments in Winnipeg, that they have sometimes transcended the graffiti-as-vandalism-of-private-property argument. One accquaintance, a former volunteer with the Downtown BIZ clean-up crew, even recalls his co-volunteers zealously removing posters and handbills from the officially sanctioned poster boards found on Portage Avenue and in the Exchange District. Communication, art, the promotion of the local arts and music scene, and other symptoms of urban health are hampered by people who don't know or care about urban health.

Downtown boosterism officials will be dismayed to know that the "city's reputation" remains--in the national art scene, that is, where local graffiti artists are featured prominently. The silver lining for their organizations, may be that some of the local celebrities of the street art world have recently moved on to Montreal, Toronto, and other less provincially-thinking cities. This summer's clean-up crews will no longer have their new pieces of unsanctioned art to remove from Winnipeg's streets, loading docks, and hydro poles.