An Epilogue by Donny Trương

Upon receiving a text message from Cousin Minh sharing stories about our extended family written by Aunt Chín, I dropped everything I was doing and focused on reading every sentence and every word. Aunt Chín’s conversational prose gave me an impression as if she was sitting next to me and telling me these stories. Among the siblings, Aunt Chín and Aunt Hai had a gift for storytelling. One time, I had the pleasure of joining Aunt Hai’s family taking a vacation to Disney World. The drive from Lancaster, Pennsylvania to Orlando, Florida took more than half a day. At that time, there was no smartphone and I was not into reading yet because I only came to America a few years earlier and my English was not good. Fortunately, Aunt Hai, who sat in the front passenger seat, told us stories in articulate details about her parents’ life and businesses during the world. I wished I had a recording device to document every word she said. My wish, however, is now fulfilled when I read Aunt Chín’s stories.

Reading about the lives of my mother’s parents and her siblings, not only made me proud, but also lucky to be related by blood with the Lý’s extended family. I admired Grandfather’s talent and audacity. At fourteen, he left his home in the village to find work. From his empty hands, he made his dream come true. He opened his own Chinese traditional drugstore and became a herbal doctor who created his own cough medication. He was not just an entrepreneur, but also an innovator. I respected Grandfather, but I had tremendous love for Grandmother. She put her life on the line to work and to feed her family. The casualty of war ended her life. Her sacrifice was profound.

Aunt Hai was not only the oldest daughter who upheld her filial piety, but also the oldest sister who loved and cared for her siblings. She was a talented business woman. Her successes in both Việt Nam and America had proved that she can be put anywhere on God’s green earth and she’ll triple her worth. Aunt Hai was a hustler. As for my mother, I had lived with her peculiarities, including her clean freak and glacial pace. As for her jealousy, I had a different perspective than Aunt Chín’s (and I will delve in more details about it).

Aunt Năm was always willing to help out her parents’ business as well as her younger sisters with schoolwork. In addition, she was a quick learner and skillful in making handcrafted jewelry. Uncle Sáu was the only son of the family and an outstanding student. His story reminded me of my childhood memories including cricket fights and soccer. I did not know about “The Beetle Car Game” until I looked it up on YouTube. It was an intriguing traditional game that made me wish kids today used their hands to craft their own toys instead of just pushing buttons on their touch screens.

Aunt Tám was indeed the savior of the family. I am here today in the land of opportunities because of her love for her family. As the first person to escape, she helped and supported each of her family members to reach the land of freedom. Last but not least, I admired Aunt Chín’s photographic memories. Although some of these stories occurred over 60 years ago, she remembered them in great detail. Her storytelling was frank and honest. She wrote what she experienced and observed. Sometimes the truth hurt and the reality was ruthless. I hope we can take away what she has offered and learn from our past.

When deciding to write this epilogue, I would like to share my own thoughts on what Aunt Chín has written. As I had mentioned before, I had a different view on my mother’s jealousy. My observation might not be right and hers might not be wrong, or vice versa. We just had two different perspectives. I knew nothing about my mother’s previous marriage because she never mentioned anything about him. In her heart and soul, he no longer existed. Aunt Chín shared the issue was that he always went away and she was jealous of him; therefore, she asked him for financial help to raise their kids. He didn’t give her anything. They got into arguments and physical fights. They ended up in divorce.

To me, my mother was not the jealous type. She shouldn’t have to ask her husband for financial support for their kids. As a responsible father, he didn’t need to be reminded to provide for his family. Maybe that was her fate; therefore, she could not escape it. Even when she was married to my father, the situation was the same. He worked far away for months and only came for a few days, then left again. When my mother asked him for financial support, he told her that he did volunteer work; therefore, he had no money. She had to pawn her jewelry to get by until we left for America.

In the first few years living in a foreign country, she raised two kids on her own. She felt sad and chastised him for not taking care of his wife and kids, but she was not jealous. Even though she knew he was having an affair with another woman in Việt Nam, she paid him no mind. After thirty years of living by herself, she no longer needed any financial or emotional support from any man. A few times I asked her if she missed him or was jealous of him and she responded, “I have no time to be jealous or to miss him.” Of course, most of her time was spent in the kitchen from early morning to late night.

I always remembered and respected her toughness; therefore, I never thought she was jealous. To be jealous was to love. If she were jealous, she could have found a way to trap him in the US or she could have gone back to Việt Nam with him. She had done neither. She gave him complete freedom. After many years of submitting the paperwork for him to reunite with his wife and son in the US, he ended up only staying for a few months and wanted to return to Việt Nam. She didn’t hesitate to buy him a one-way ticket back even though she knew he would not have another opportunity to return to America.

I was not as strong as my mother, but she had taught me an invaluable lesson in love and marriage: You can’t stop someone from leaving. Before my own marriage, I had a few relationships in which “my lovers left me one by one like small rivers.” I was sad, but I accepted their departure and never held them back. I have found love for the time being. I will love with all my heart and soul. We will walk together in this journey through life and I won’t let go unless she wants to go. I will hold on if she wants to stay, but not if she wants to go—even if I had fallen madly in love with her.

As for education, I have a different view than Aunt Chín. Of course, education is important at any time, but it was heavier in her generation than mine. I must confess. I hated high school and college. My English was poor and my grades weren’t good. I went to school, but it felt like I went to prison. Especially during four years of college, I counted down each day until I finished serving my time to get a release paper. Why didn’t I drop out of school? The only reason was that I didn’t want to disappoint my mother. In Aunt Hai’s family, Cousin Minh and Cousin Karen graduated from college. In Aunt Năm’s family, Cousin Nhơn and Cousin Tam also graduated from college. Aunt Tư’s family had none. I wanted my mother to be proud of me and that was my motivation to prevent me from dropping out of college. I earned my BA with an average GPA. Fortunately, I found my skills in design; therefore, I taught myself to be a web designer.

I only started to love school when I was accepted into the master program in graphic design. Even though I had a full-time job and a family with young children, I studied hard. As a result, my GPA went up to almost 4.0. With my master, I was promoted to Director of Design and Web Services. Although I had risen to the director position, I still had to work for the people above me. If I were lucky, I would have a boss who would trust my expertise and provide me the flexibility to do my work. As of this writing, I have that boss. If I were not so lucky, I would have a boss who would micromanage my every step. Unfortunately, I had that type of boss and I was stressed out. I would never put myself in that position again.

In contrast, Cousin Duy is his own boss and he has succeeded in starting his own business. In retrospect, Duy inherited our grandfather’s genes in business. Unlike me, they worked for themselves. I had indeed tried to work for myself, but I didn’t have the business mind like Grandfather and Aunt Hai; therefore, I had to continue working for the people above my pay rate. Nowadays, Duy is doing well with his own business and he is happily married to his wonderful wife. They have two beautiful daughters. All that he needed now is a little boy to carry on the Lý legacy to fulfill our grandfather’s wish.

Let’s get back to Aunt Chín’s writing. Because these stories were meaningful to me and they will be more valuable to my kids later on, if they wanted to learn about their origin, I wanted to contribute in a small way. I asked Aunt Chín’s permission to allow me to edit these stories and put them together in a book form to preserve them. I was filled with joy when she gave me the permission to revise her stories.

I am not a writer, but I am a designer who enjoys writing and reading. I write on my personal blog everyday to hone my writing skills in English and Vietnamese, but this is the first time that I edit someone else’s work. It is a daunting task even though I just help fix spelling and make the prose flow better. At first, Aunt Chín only wrote in Vietnamese, then she translated her stories into English. For almost a month, I spent every late night and early morning editing the content, but I am sure I still missed many errors. If you spot anything, please contact me.

As for the book platform, I am a web designer; therefore, I created a web book instead of a printed book. A web book can easily be shared with family members anywhere. When I wrote my thesis for the Master of Arts in Graphic Design, I chose my topic in Vietnamese Typography as an experiment. My goal was to create a guide to help type designers around understand the Vietnamese language so they could design proper, legible, readable diacritics. I dug deep into my research on the history of the Vietnamese language and studied our writing system to provide a complete guide on the topic of Vietnamese diacritics. After I submitted my final thesis and received an A+, I listed my printed book for sale and launched a web version online. The printed version didn’t do too well because no one knew anything about me. The web version, however, attracted thousands of unique visitors each day. My web book reached type designers around the world. In return, they had hired me to review and make recommendations related to Vietnamese diacritics for their new typefaces. I am proud to play a small part in expanding and enriching our Vietnamese language.

Because of the success of Vietnamese Typography and the potential of the web for reaching people across the globe, I wanted to continue to create a web book instead of a printed book. If later on anyone in our family wanted to contribute, it would be easier. Whereas a printed book can’t be updated until the next reprint or a new edition, a web book can continue to be edited and expanded. I would like this website to be a living book.

At the same time, I want to maintain all the profile information for our family members including their official names, ages, birth dates, and death dates (for those family members who had left us). I would like to thank any family members who contributed to this project by sending in profiles and photos. Thanks to Cousin Minh for encouraging Aunt Chín to write. Once again, thanks Aunt Chín from the bottom of my heart for these incredible stories.

Lời bạt của cháu Doanh

Khi nhận được tin nhắn của anh Minh chia sẻ những bài viết của dì Chín kể lại những câu chuyện của đại gia đình chúng ta, tôi gạt ngay những gì mình đang làm để chăm chú đọc từng câu từng chữ. Cách viết đối thoại của dì khi đọc cho tôi được cảm giác như đang được dì ngồi bên cạnh kể chuyện cho tôi nghe. Trong các dì cậu, dì Chín và dì Hai có một khiếu kể chuyện hấp dẫn. Có lần tôi được đi Disney World với gia đình dì Hai. Lái xe từ Lancaster, Pennsylvania tới Orlando, Florida mất hơn nửa ngày. Lúc đó chưa có điện thoại di động và cũng chưa thích đọc sách vì tôi chỉ qua Mỹ được vài năm nên không rành tiếng Anh. Cũng may là có dì Hai ngồi kể chuyện nên thời gian trôi qua mau. Dì kể hăng say từng chi tiết về cuộc đời ông bà ngoại cũng như việc làm ăn khó khăn của gia đình vào thời chiến tranh. Tôi ước gì lúc đó được thu âm lại những gì dì đã kể. Nỗi ước ao của tôi giờ đây cũng được hồi đáp khi đọc những bài viết của dì Chín.

Đọc về tiểu sử và cuộc sống của ông bà ngoại và các dì cậu, tôi không những chỉ tự hào mà còn rất được may mắn được chung dòng máu họ Lý. Tôi khâm phục tài năng và sự táo bạo của ông ngoại. Mười bốn tuổi đã dám tự mình rời bỏ quê hương và gia đình đi nơi khác kiếm sống. Từ hai bàn tay trắng, ông đã thực hiện được giấc mơ của mình. Ông mở một tiệm thuốc Bắc, biết bắt mạch, và chế tạo ra thuốc ho. Ông không chỉ là nhà doanh nghiệp (an entrepreneur) mà luôn cả một nhà sáng tạo (an innovator). Tôi kính trọng Ông Ngoại nhưng thương mến Bà Ngoại. Vì gia đình, bà không ngại tính mạng của mình để kiếm sống nuôi nấng con cháu. Chiến tranh đã chiếm đi cuộc sống của bà. Sự hy sinh của bà quá lớn lao.

Dì Hai không chỉ là một người con cả hiếu thảo, mà còn là một chị cả thương yêu các em của mình. Dì là một người giỏi về kinh doanh. Sự thành công của dì từ trong nước ra tới hải ngoại chứng tỏ rằng cho dù ở bất cứ nơi nào trên trái đất này, dì cũng có thể tạo nên sự nghiệp. Dì là một người đầy nghị lực (a hustler). Còn mẹ của tôi thì tôi đã biết quá nhiều, từ tính cách kỹ lưỡng đến tư cách chậm chạp. Còn về tính ghen tuông của mẹ thì tôi có cái nhìn khác dì (và tôi sẽ đi vào chi tiết nhiều hơn ở đoạn dưới).

Dì Năm cũng là một người con luôn sẵn sàng phụ giúp cha mẹ mình trong công việc làm ăn, và dạy dỗ các em trong việc học. Ngoài ra dì người học nhanh và còn khéo tay về nghệ thuật trang sức. Cậu Sáu là người con trai duy nhất trong gia đình. Về học vấn thì cậu Sáu rất giỏi. Tuổi thơ của cậu cho tôi nhớ lại thời thơ ấu của mình với những trò chơi như đá dế và đá banh. Còn trò “Siêu xe bù rầy” thì tôi không hề biết và phải nhờ đến YouTube mới thấy được một trò chơi dân gian thú vị. Tôi ước gì trẻ con bây giờ dùng đôi tay mình tạo nên trò chơi chứ không chỉ bấm games.

Dì Tám đúng là vị cứu tinh của gia đình. Tôi có được ngày hôm nay nhờ công lao của dì. Là người đến trước, dì đã lần lượt giúp đỡ và bảo lãnh anh chị em và các cháu đến bến bờ tự do. Và cuối cùng nhưng không kém phần quan trọng, tôi kính nể trí nhớ của dì Chín. Những câu chuyện đã xảy ra hơn 60 năm, mà dì vẫn nhớ từng rõ chi tiết một, và dì đã viết lại rất chân thật theo những gì dì đã sống và đã từng chứng kiến. Tuy nhiên, sự thật đôi lúc phũ phàng hoặc đau lòng, nên hy vọng những gì dì chia sẻ, chúng ta đọc để rút kinh nghiệm.

Khi viết lời bạt này, tôi muốn được chia sẻ những cảm nhận của mình về những bài viết của dì Chín. Như đã nói trên, tôi có cái nhìn khác với dì về tính ghen tuông của mẹ tôi. Không phải tôi đúng hoặc dì sai, hay tôi sai hoặc dì đúng, mà chỉ là hai khía cạnh khác nhau. Tôi không biết gì về chuyện chồng trước của bà, vì Mẹ chưa bao giờ nhắc đến ông. Trong thâm tâm Mẹ, ông không còn tồn tại. Dì cho rằng lý do hai người ly dị là vì ông thường đi xa, còn Mẹ thì ghen tuông nên Mẹ đòi hỏi ông đưa tiền nuôi con. Ông không đưa, hai người cãi nhau, rồi đi đến chia tay.

Theo tôi thì Mẹ không phải là một người đàn bà ghen tuông. Kêu gọi người chồng đưa tiền nuôi con là chuyện đáng lý ra không cần phải mở miệng. Trách nhiệm của một người cha là phải lo lắng cho con cái mà không cần phải nhắc nhở. Chắc số phận mẹ đã định nên không thể nào trốn tránh được. Khi lập gia đình với ba tôi cũng thế. Ông đi làm xa có khi cả tháng mới về được hai ba ngày rồi đi tiếp. Khi Mẹ hỏi đến tiền nuôi con thì ông không có, vì ông chỉ đi xây chùa và làm từ thiện. Mẹ phải bán vàng dành dụm sống cho đến ngày đi Mỹ.

Những ngày tháng sống trên xứ lạ quê người, Mẹ một mình nuôi nấng con cái. Mẹ buồn và trách móc Ba đã không lo lắng cho vợ con, nhưng Mẹ không hề ghen tuông. Cho dù Mẹ biết Ba ở Việt Nam lăng nhăng với người đàn bà khác, Mẹ vẫn không hề quan tâm. Ba mươi mấy năm sống cô lập, Mẹ đã không cần đến sự giúp đỡ về tài chính hoặc sự hiện diện của một người đàn ông nào cả. Có vài lần tôi cũng hỏi Mẹ có nhớ ông không hay có ghen tuông gì không, Mẹ lắc đầu đáp, “Có thời giờ đâu mà nhớ mà ghen”. Dĩ nhiên thời gian của Mẹ chỉ quanh quẩn trong nhà bếp từ sáng sớm đến đêm khuya.

Tôi luôn nhớ và kính phục sự mạnh mẽ đó của Mẹ cho nên tôi không hề nghĩ rằng Mẹ là người biết ghen. Có thương mới có ghen. Nếu như Mẹ có ghen có lẽ Mẹ đã tìm cách giữ được Ba bên cạnh. Một là Mẹ trở về Việt Nam sống với Ba. Hai là Mẹ ép buộc Ba ở lại Mỹ. Nhưng Mẹ đã không làm hai việc đó. Mẹ cho Ba quyền tự do. Sau nhiều năm vất vả làm giấy tờ, cuối cùng Ba đã sang Mỹ đoàn tụ cùng vợ con, nhưng chỉ ba tháng sau Ba đã muốn trở về lại Việt Nam. Mẹ đã không ngần ngại mua vé máy bay cho Ba về, cho dù biết rằng Ba đi sẽ không còn cơ hội quay lại Mỹ.

Tuy tôi không mạnh mẽ như Mẹ nhưng Mẹ đã dạy cho tôi một bài học rất quý báu trong tình cảm và hôn nhân: không thể nào giữ lại người muốn ra đi. Trước khi lập gia đình, tôi cũng đã trải qua những cuộc tình và rồi “từng người tình bỏ ta đi như những dòng sông nhỏ”. Tuy buồn nhưng tôi đã chấp nhận để họ ra đi mà không hề giữ lại. Giờ đây tôi cũng tìm được hạnh phúc. Tôi vẫn giữ bản tính của mình. Khi đã yêu và đã chấp nhận cùng nhau đi trên đường đời, và tôi sẽ không bao giờ “buông tay âm thầm tìm về cô đơn.” Tuy nhiên, tôi vẫn sẽ không giữ lại nếu người tôi yêu muốn ra đi. Tôi sẽ chấp nhận như Mẹ tôi đã từng chấp nhận. Giữa người ở lại chứ không bao giờ giữ người muốn ra đi, cho dù có yêu đến cuồng dại.

Về việc học, tôi có quan điểm khác dì.Việc học ở thời điểm nào cũng quan trọng, nhưng chắc nó đặc nặng ở thế hệ dì hơn là thế hệ tôi. Thú thật lúc còn học trung học và đại học, tôi rất ghét học. Lúc đó tiếng Anh không rành và học cũng rất dở. Đi học mà như đi tù. Nhất là bốn năm đại học, tôi đếm lịch từng ngày chỉ muốn để lấy cái bằng trong tay. Thế thì tại sao tôi vẫn theo đuổi học mà không bỏ? Lý do đơn giản là tôi không muốn Mẹ bị thất vọng. Anh Minh và chị Hoa Nhỏ con dì Hai điều có bằng đại học. Nhơn và Tâm con dì Năm cũng có bằng đại học. Chẳng lẽ con bà Tư lại không có? Tôi cũng muốn Mẹ tự hào về tôi và đó là động lực để tôi học lì chứ không phải học giỏi. Tôi lấy bằng bốn năm với số điểm trung bình rồi tập trung vào tìm việc làm. Cũng may là tôi có một chút năng khiếu về thiết kế nên tôi đã theo nghề thiết kế websites.

Sao này tôi thật sự thích học khi được nhận vào chương trình thạc sĩ về ngành thiết kế đồ hoạ. Tôi chăm chỉ học, cho dù rất bận rộn với công việc làm và gia đình, nên GPA gần 4.0. Với bằng thạc sĩ trong tay, tôi được thăng chất lên làm tổng giám đốc (Director of Design and Web Services). Tuy nhiên vẫn phải làm dưới tay biết bao nhiêu người. May mắn thì gặp sếp giỏi và dễ dãi (như bây giờ). Xui thì gặp sếp bất tài còn khó khăn. Tôi đã từng trải và thời gian đó đối với tôi rất căng thẳng.

Ngược lại giờ đây, Duy, con cậu Sáu, tự làm chủ cho chính mình và rất thành công. Xem xét lại thì Duy giống ông nội mình. Cả hai đều tự làm chủ chứ không đi làm công như tôi. Cho dù đã cố gắng gầy dựng sự nghiệp để tự mình làm chủ nhưng tôi không có được đầu óc thương mại như ông Ngoại và dì Hai nên đành phải tiếp tục làm công cho người khác. Giờ đây Duy cũng đã có việc làm ổn định và sống hạnh phúc bên người vợ hoạt bát cùng hai cô con gái dễ thương. Chỉ còn mong mỏi thêm một công tử để tiếp nối dòng dõi nhà họ Lý theo ý muốn của ông Nội.

Trở lại những bài viết của dì Chín. Vì những câu chuyện của dì rất có ý nghĩa với tôi, và sẽ còn có giá trị cho con cháu về sau, nếu chúng nó muốn tìm hiểu về cội nguồn của chúng nó, nên tôi muốn đóng góp vào một phần nhỏ. Tôi xin phép dì cho tôi biên tập lại những bài viết của dì và làm thành một quyển sách để những câu chuyện sẽ luôn tồn tại. Và tôi rất vui mừng khi dì đã cho phép tôi sử dụng những bài viết của dì.

Tôi không phải là nhà văn cũng không phải là người rành về chữ nghĩa, nhưng tôi rất mê viết và đọc. Hằng ngày tôi vẫn luôn tập luyện viết tiếng Anh và tiếng Việt trên trang blog cá nhân của mình. Đây là lần đầu tiên tôi làm vai trò của người biên tập (editor). Tôi chỉ sửa lại một ít chính tả và nối kết lại những câu để đọc trôi chảy hơn. Lúc đầu chỉ có tiếng Việt thôi, nhưng sau này dì Chín đã viết thêm tiếng Anh. Tuy đã bỏ gần một tháng thức khuya mỗi đêm để biên soạn, nhưng vẫn còn nhiều thiếu sót. Nếu ai trong đại gia đình đọc thấy gì sai, xin cho tôi hay.

Còn về phần thiết kế sách, tôi là người thiết kế websites, nên làm một quyển sách trên mạng chứ không in giấy. Đơn giản là dùng web để dễ dàng chia sẻ đến đại gia đình khắp nơi. Khi còn học chương trình thạc sĩ, tôi dùng bài luận án của mình về đề tài Vietnamese Typography (Nghệ thuật chữ Việt) để làm thử nghiệm. Mục đích của tôi là viết một cuốn sách để giúp những nhà thiết kế chữ trên thế thới tạo ra dấu tiếng Việt cho đúng, rõ, và dễ đọc. Tôi đã bỏ ra rất nhiều thời gian để nghiên cứu về nguồn gốc chữ Việt, và học hỏi thêm về tiếng Việt để tạo thành một quyển sách cho luận án của mình. Sau khi nộp sách và nhận được điểm A+, tôi in sách bán đồng thời thiết kế một trang nhà cho quyển sách của mình. Sách in bán chỉ được mấy mươi quyển. Còn sách trên mạng thì được cả ngàn người truy cập mỗi ngày. Nhờ sách trên web mà nhiều nhà thiết kế chữ trên thế giới đã đọc và tìm đến tôi để cùng hợp tác với họ mỗi khi họ phát hành một bộ phông mới. Tôi tự hào góp phần nho nhỏ vào việc làm cho chữ Việt thêm phong phú hơn.

Qua sự thành công của Vietnamese Typography và khả năng của sách web đem đến cho nhiều người, tôi quyết định làm quyển sách này trên mạng chứ không trên giấy. Hơn nữa một quyển sách về gia đình sẽ còn tiếp diễn chứ không dừng lại ở đây. Sau này có ai trong đại gia đình muốn đóng góp hoặc bổ sung thêm cũng dễ dàng. Ngược lại, một khi đã in ra sách rồi thì không thể sửa chữa được mà phải in lại sách mới. Tôi muốn quyển sách này tiếp tục sống.

Đồng thời qua quyển sách này tôi muốn lưu giữ lý lịch của ông bà và dì cậu như tên trên giấy tờ, tuổi tác, ngày-tháng-năm sinh, và ngày-tháng-năm mất (cho những người đã rời xa chúng ta). Xin cám ơn những thành viên trong gia đình đã gửi hình ảnh và những tài liệu cho quyển sách này. Cám ơn anh Minh đã động viên dì Chín để viết. Và một lần nữa, xin cám ơn từ đáy lòng đến dì Chín về những câu chuyện quý báo này.

The Sweet Side of Tupac Shakur

Tupac Amaru Shakur died at the age of twenty-five. Tupac was gunned down when he was at the top of his game. He was young, outspoken, and didn’t give a fuck. He embodied the image of gangster rap. In his music, he expressed eloquently on police brutality and gun violence in the black community. His mantra was, “Live by the gun and die by the gun.”

As a fan of Tupac, I had to get beyond his gangster mentality as well as his misogyny. What Tupac had touched me was the sweet side of his music and he always included it in his albums. His 1991 debut, 2Pacalypse Now, is not my favorite, but “Brenda’s Got a Baby” stood out to me. It demonstrated Tupac’s articulate storytelling. It’s a tragic song about a young black girl who fell in love with the wrong guy. She ended up selling her body and found slain. Tupac narrated Brenda’s story:

She’s twelve years old and she’s havin’ a baby
In love with a molester, who’s sexin’ her crazy
And yet and she thinks that he’ll be with her forever
And dreams of a world where the two of them are together
Whatever, he left her and she had the baby solo
She had it on the bathroom floor and didn’t know, so
She didn’t know what to throw away and what to keep
She wrapped the baby up and threw him in a trash heap.

In 1993, Tupac followed up with Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.…. In “Keep Ya Head Up,” he showed his tenderness toward women. Tupac rhymed:

Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
I say the darker the flesh, then the deeper the roots
I give a holla to my sisters on welfare
2Pac cares if don’t nobody else care
I know they like to beat you down a lot
When you come around the block, brothers clown a lot
But please don’t cry, dry your eyes, never let up
Forgive, but don’t forget, girl, keep ya head up
And when he tells you you ain’t nothin’, don’t believe him
And if he can’t learn to love you, you should leave him
’Cause, sister, you don’t need him
And I ain’t tryin’ to gas you up, I just call ’em how I see ’em
You know what makes me unhappy?
When brothers make babies
And leave a young mother to be a pappy
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t, we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies that make the babies
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up?
I know you’re fed up, ladies, but keep ya head up.

Tupac was charming and sweet when it came to women. He was on their side. Unfortunately, he changed completely after he was charged with sexual assault. From a caring gentleman, he turned into a misogynistic asshole.

His 1995’s Me Against the World was released while he was serving time for his sexual assault conviction. The album was dark and menacing as if the world were against him. Nevertheless, Tupac recorded “Dear Mama,” a loving, heartfelt tribute to his mother Afeni Shakur who was a single, addicted mother trying to raise her two kids. Tupac showed his appreciation:

I finally understand
For a woman it ain’t easy tryin’ to raise a man
You always was committed
A poor single mother on welfare, tell me how you did it
There’s no way I can pay you back, but the plan
Is to show you that I understand: you are appreciated.

I still know this song by heart. I remember the lyrics word by word. His third verse reminded me of my mother:

Pour out some liquor and I reminisce
‘Cause through the drama I can always depend on my mama
And when it seems that I’m hopeless
You say the words that can get me back in focus
When I was sick as a little kid
To keep me happy there’s no limit to the things you did
And all my childhood memories
Are full of all the sweet things you did for me
And even though I act crazy
I gotta thank the Lord that you made me
There are no words that can express how I feel
You never kept a secret, always stayed real
And I appreciate how you raised me
And all the extra love that you gave me
I wish I could take the pain away
If you can make it through the night, there’s a brighter day
Everything will be alright if you hold on
It’s a struggle every day, gotta roll on
And there’s no way I can pay you back, but my plan
Is to show you that I understand: you are appreciated

I missed my mama and I never forget the times she never left my bed side when I was sick as a little kid. I appreciated the unconditional love she gave me. “Dear Mama” brings me to tears every time, especially now that my mother is gone.

After joining Death Row Records, Tupac released his double album, All Eyez On Me, in which he offered a wide range of styles. “No More Pain” and “Got My Mind Made Up” were for the thug bangers. “How Do U Want It” and “California Love” were for the club heads. “All Bout U” and “Wonda Why They Call U Bitch” were for the haters. “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” and “Life Goes On” were for the homies that died too young. Listening to “Life Goes On” made me think of my homie Nate. We used to drink together and rap along this track:

As I bail through the empty halls, breath stinkin’ in my jaws
Ring, ring, ring — quiet, y’all, incomin’ call
Plus this my homie from high school, he gettin’ by
It’s time to bury another brother, nobody cry
Life as a baller: alcohol and booty calls
We used to do ’em as adolescents, do you recall?
Raised as G’s, loc’ed out, and blazed the weed
Get on the roof, let’s get smoked out, and blaze with me
Two in the morning and we still high, assed out
Screamin’, “Thug ’til I die!” before I passed out
But now that you’re gone, I’m in the zone
Thinkin’ I don’t wanna die all alone, but now you gone
And all I got left are stinkin’ memories
I love them niggas to death, I’m drinkin’ Hennessy
While tryin’ to make it last
I drank a fifth for that ass when you passed, ’cause life goes on.

Rest in peace, Nate. You will always be in my heart. After Tupac was murdered, I thought his music would end as well, but his posthumous albums continued to come out. R U Still Down? (Remember Me) released in 1997, just a year after his death. Tupac rapped with paranoia and anger on most tracks. On “Hellrazor,” in particular, he spoke out about Latasha who was killed at a convenience store where she bought a bottle of juice. He raged:

Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why
Little girl like LaTasha, had to die
She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot
Her little body couldn’t take it, it shook and dropped
And when I saw it on the news how she bucked the girl, killed Latasha
Now I’m screamin’ fuck the world, in the end
It’s my friends, that flip-flop
Lip-locked on my dick when my shit drop
Thug Life motherfucker, I lick shots
Every nigga on my block dropped two cops
Dear Lord can ya hear me? When I die
Let a nigga be strapped, fucked up, and high
With my hands on the trigger, thug nigga
Stressin’ like a motherfuckin’ drug dealer
And even in the darkest nights, I’m a thug for Life
I got the heart to fight now
Mama raised a hellraiser why cry
That’s just life in the ghetto, do or die.

What I appreciated about Tupac was that he wasn’t afraid to show his sweet and sentimental sides. He was able to lay his soul naked for us to hear his words and to feel his heart. I still wonder how far he would have come if he was still alive today.

Jay-Z: The Gifted Lyricist

It is not a secret that I am obsessed with Jay-Z’s music. I have spent many years listening to his albums and analyzing his lyrics. Without a doubt, Jay has proven to be one of the greatest rappers alive. He has the flow; he has the cadence; he has the delivery; but what made him a lyrical genius is his words. He holds the power of words, in which he has been crafting and developing before he even picked up the mic.

I always loved the story of his writing process. Jay started writing in his notebooks at an early age. When he was out hustling and an idea came to him, he could reach for his notebooks at home; therefore, he started writing on brown paper bags or whatever piece of scrap paper he could find at the moment. Then he would lose those papers. As a result, he wrote them in his head instead. He built longer and more complex verses inside his head. Jay was known for his paperless recording process. He went into the studio, listened to the beats, and just spat his verses without a word written down.

I have been adapting his process into my own writing as well for this blog. I can sit in front of my computer and let the words flow off my head. In twenty years of blogging, I never had an issue where I stared at the blank screen and didn’t know what to write. Something always came up. Whenever I was on the road and an idea started to form, I just started writing in my head until I had access to my computer to type up my words. This piece is a perfect example. While driving to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and listening to Jay, the concept for this piece came to mind and I knew exactly what I wanted to write.

Over his long career as a rap artist, Jay had released 13 studio albums for himself and a handful of collaborative projects. I don’t listen to all of them, but the albums I listened to I often revisited them over the years. In my own perspective, these are the albums that defined Jay as a powerhouse lyricist. Although the albums I am about to mention can be listened to from the beginning to end and I highly recommend them, I won’t delve into each individual track.

Right off his 1996’s debut release, Reasonable Doubt, Jay wasted no time declaring, “Can’t Knock a Hustler,” in which he rapped, “We do dirt like worms, produce G’s like sperm / ’Til legs spread like germs.” In “Dead Presidents 2,” Jay sampled a hot line from Nas (“I’m out for presidents to represent me”) and made it a hot song. Later on, he dissed Nas about it too.

In 1998, Jay released his wildly commercial success Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life with hits like “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” “Money, Cash, Hoes” (with DMX), and “Can I Get a Fuck You?” (with Ja Rule and Amil). This is not one of my favorite albums, but it put Jay-Z on the mainstream map.

A year later, 1999, Jay followed up with Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, in which he walked the line between a hard hustler and chart chaser. As I re-listened to “Big Pimpin’,” I couldn’t help, but wonder if Jay ever regretted making one of the most misogynist rap verses ever. Although it is so gross, the entire verse is worth quoting in full:

You know I thug ’em, fuck ’em, love ’em, leave ’em
‘Cause I don’t fuckin’ need ’em
Take ’em out the hood, keep ’em lookin’ good
But I don’t fuckin’ feed ’em
First time they fuss I’m breezin’
Talkin’ about, “What’s the reasons?”
I’m a pimp in every sense of the word
Bitch, better trust and believe ’em
In the cut where I keep ’em
’Til I need a nut, ’til I need to beat the guts
Then it’s “beep beep” and I’m pickin’ ‘em up
Let ’em play with the dick in the truck
Many chicks wanna put Jigga’s fists in cuffs
Divorce him and split his bucks
Just because you got good head
I’ma break bread, so you can be livin’ it up?
Shit, I part with nothin’, y’all be frontin’
Me give my heart to a woman?
Not for nothin’, never happen; I’ll be forever mackin’
Heart cold as assassins, I got no passion
I got no patience and I hate waitin’
Ho, get your ass in and let’s ride!

How do you defend the undefendable? I am sure Jay doesn’t need anyone to defend his work, but it took me years to realize that he had thrown a line in there to defend himself: “I’m a pimp in every sense of the word.” This is Big Pimpin’ talking, not Big Jay. Jay just retold the story of a pimp.

On September 11, 2001, the same day American was under attack, Jay released “The Blueprint,” which was filled with lyrical prowess. Right off “The Takeover,” Jay belittled Nas:

You’ve been in this 10, I’ve been in it five; smarten up, Nas!
Four albums in 10 years, nigga? I could divide
That’s one every… let’s say two, two of them shits was due
One was “nah…,” the other was Illmatic
That’s a one-hot-album-every-10-year average
And that’s so (Lame)

Speaking of counting, Jay enjoyed counting his money on “U Don’t Know”:

I smartened up, opened the market up
One million, two million, three million, four
In eighteen months, eighty million more
Now add that number up with the one I said before
You are now lookin’ at one smart black boy
Mama ain’t raised no fool
Put me anywhere on God’s green earth, I’ll triple my worth, motherfucker

On the same track, Jay boasted about his hustle:

I sell ice in the winter, I sell fire in Hell
I am a hustler, baby, I’ll sell water to a well
I was born to get cake, move on and switch states
Cop the coupe with the roof gone and switch plates
Was born to dictate, never follow orders, dick face
Get your shit straight, fucker, this is Big Jay

On November 12, 2002, Jay released his lyrical pinnacle, The Black Album. On “What More Can I Say,” Jay announced his retirement:

Pound for pound, I’m the best to ever come around here
Excludin’ nobody, look what I embody:
The soul of a hustler, I really ran the street
A CEO’s mind, that marketin’ plan was me
And no I ain’t get shot up a whole bunch of times
Or make up shit in a whole bunch of lines
And I ain’t animated like, say, a Busta Rhymes
But the real shit you get when you bust down my lines
Add that to the fact I went plat’ a bunch of times
Times that by my influence on pop culture
I’m supposed to be number one on everybody list
We’ll see what happens when I no longer exist
Fuck this man!

From “December 4th” to “Encore” and “Moment of Clarity” to “99 Problems,” if Jay were to bow out, he would always be remembered as one of rap’s greatest lyricists. Fortunately, Jay couldn’t leave rap alone because the game needed him. His next four studio releases didn’t do much until he collaborated with Kanye West.

Watch the Throne released in 2011. What a pair they made. As “H.A.M” suggested, Jay and Ye went as hard as motherfuckers on every track. “Who Gon Stop Me,” in particular, sums up Jay’s success story:

When you’re growing up worthless
Middle finger to my old life
Special shoutout to my old head
If it wasn’t for your advice
A nigga would have been so dead
I’m living life til these niggas kill me
Turn this up if you niggas feel me
I’m riding dirty, tryna get filthy
Pablo Picasso, Rothkos, Rilkes
Graduated to the MoMA
And I did all of this without a diploma
Graduated from the corner
Y’all can play me for a muthafuckin’ fool if you wanna
Street-smart and I’m book-smart
Coulda been a chemist ’cause I cook smart
Only thing that can stop me is me, hey
And I’ma stop when the hook start, hol’ up

Jay indeed did it without a diploma. He didn’t need the official education to prove that he had what it took to be extremely successful. He did it with literate and literary. He got wealthy through his execute mind, but his words got him there.

In 2017, Jay released 4:44, his most emotionally naked album yet. On the title track he apologized to his wife:

I seen the innocence leave your eyes
I still mourn its death and
I apologize for all the stillborns
’Cause I wasn’t present, your body wouldn’t accept it
I apologize to all the women whom I toyed with your emotions
’Cause I was emotionless
And I apologize ’cause at your best, you are love
And because I fall short of what I say I’m all about
Your eyes leave with the soul that your body once housed
And you stare blankly into space
Thinkin’ of all the time, you wasted it on all this basic shit
So I apologize

I am just scratching the surface here. Jay has more lyrical depth than I can offer in this piece. If you are interested in his work, listen to the albums I have highlighted above. You can also pick up a copy of Michael Eric Dyson’s Jay-Z: Made in America, in which the author examines Jay’s role as a gifted lyricist.

I am not sure when Jay will release his next album, but I am definitely looking forward to listening to it. Until then, I will continue to enjoy his past works.

Web Typography: A Brief History

In his presentation titled “Universal Typography,” Adobe Typekit manager Tim Brown stated: “The web is the best place for text. Unlike a printed artifact, text at a URL can be searched, copied, translated, linked to other documents. It can be printed. It’s convenient. It’s accessible.” (Brown 2014) Since the invention of the Internet, text has always played a major role on the web. In its two and a half decades of existence—the web celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in March of this year—the web has revolutionized our daily communication, interaction and business transaction, but the true transformation of typography to the web only took off in the last few years. For the first twenty years, the web had gone through many changes such as adopting web standards, using CSS for layouts instead of tables, and focusing on content strategy and user-centered design. Even though the web embraced text from the beginning, they were not well integrated together for quite some time.

The First Web Site

On December 12, 1990, web inventor Tim Berners-Lee published the first web site ever on the Internet after he figured out the basic concept of the web including Uniform Resource Locator (URL), Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). He also created the browser and wrote the software to run the web server. The project Berners-Lee launched was about the World Wide Web, in which he defined, “a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.” (Berners-Lee 1990) The site has nothing but texts and links to other documents. As a result, the site still works today as it did when the project was first published twenty-five years ago, which is impressive, despite the changes and advancement in web technologies.

Type on Screen

In the mid-1990s, type designer Matthew Carter gave birth to Georgia and Verdana, two widely used typefaces for screen-based media. Commissioned by Microsoft specifically for texts on web pages, both of these typefaces were designed first in bitmaps (to match the pixels of the screen resolutions at the time) and then translated into outline fonts. To make texts legible and readable on screen, Carter had meticulously designed these fonts with large x-height, open aperture and generous space. In addition to Georgia and Verdana, the web could only display system fonts such as Arial, Helvetica and Times New Roman, which are available on all computers.

Image as Text

As graphic design was making the transition to the web from mid-1990s to mid-2000s, designers wanted to use more typefaces than just the handful that come with the system fonts. The simplest alternative was to use image as text. One of the advantages of using this method is that designers didn’t have deal with font licensing. Designers could use any typefaces available on their computer, but the downside was that each piece of text had to be sliced up individually in tools like Photoshop or Fireworks. One popular site that used images as texts was the New Yorker. To be consistent with its printed publication, each headline on the New Yorker web site served up images as texts in order to use NY Vogue Goat as its branded typeface. Until November 2010 when the publication started using Typekit to serve its custom fonts, someone’s job at the New Yorker was simply to slice up those images all day long.

Image Replacement Techniques

A major issue of using image as type was that text was not searchable, selectable, or translatable. To get around that problem, web practitioners came up with various image replacement techniques to fill the void. In April 2004, web designer and developer Shaun Inman developed a technique called Scalable Inman Flash Replacement (sIFR) to embed custom fonts in a small Flash movie. He also used JavaScript and CSS to make the text selectable.

While sIFR solved the issue of image slicing, its main drawback was relying on Flash, an Adobe’s proprietary software program for delivering rich contents on the web. Furthermore, setting up sIFR required some web knowledge. In April 2009, system engineer Simo Kinnunen created a new and improved technique called Cufón (Scalable Vector Graphics, SVG). Cufón used JavaScript to render generated fonts (SVG format) to the browser. This technique was easier to set up and did not rely on Flash. Although many image replacement techniques have continued to be developed and advanced over the years—CSS image replacement is still in use today for logo on web sites—they are not genuine web typography.

Web Fonts

Web typography is not a new concept. In 1998, the Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) Working Group proposed the support of the @font-face rule to allow any typeface to be displayed on web pages. Internet Explorer 4 was the first browser to implement it, but with no success. The proposal had no piracy protection or licensing agreement in place. As a result, @font-face was stalled for almost a decade.

In 2008, @font-face made a comeback when Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox implemented the rule. In May 2009, Jeffrey Veen introduced Typekit, a type hosting service that let designers use high-quality fonts on web sites with the ease of implementation and the worry-free of licensing and cross-browser compatibility. In just two years, Adobe acquired Typekit bringing more classic types such as Garamond Pro, Minion Pro, and Myriad Pro to the web.

In 2010, Google launched its own library of fonts for the world to use for free. As a result, Google only hosts open-source fonts. With its ease of use API (application programming interface), Google has succeeded in making the web more accessible, readable, beautiful and open.

The @font-face rule is now supported on all modern browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera) and mobile browsers (iOS Safari, Android, and Chrome, except for Opera Mini). In addition to Typekit and Google Fonts, many foundries, including Font Bureau, Fontdeck, FontShop, Hoefler & Co., and Webtype, began to offer web-font services. In just a few years, web fonts have swept the world of design. With the rise of responsive web design, typography is going through a new transformation like never before. Unlike a printed publication, the flexibility of the web gives designers no control of their work. Whether through smartphones, tablets, laptops or game consoles, they have no idea how their work will be viewed on a user’s device. In order to accommodate the growing number of devices coming to the market continuously, they have to embrace the fluidity of the web and let go of the notion of pixel perfect control. Designing for the unknown could be intimidating, but that also makes web design challenging and exciting. Brown is right in his statement. The web is the best place for accessing text.

Evaluating Types

When we read, our eyes move along the lines in a series of brief moments called saccades. As our eyes jump back and forth, we absorb information in between those hops known as fixed periods. The better the reader, the larger the saccades, and the shorter the fixed periods. We read faster if the subject is familiar to us. As we read, we recognize the shapes of the words rather than individual letters; therefore, the strokes and the spaces play a key role in legibility and readability. Particularly with screen resolution, strokes and spaces might disappear at small sizes on devices with low pixel density.

When choosing text typefaces to be read on screens, designers need to consider the following elements: a generous x-height, even spacing, open counters and apertures, prominent ascenders and descenders, and clear stroke joints. Also keep Erik Spiekermann’s advice in mind: “Don’t sacrifice esthetics for practicality. Pick a typeface that has character and strength. Basically, the models which survived 500 years will look good on screens today.” (Spiekermann 2013, 179)

Bibliography

  • Brown, Tim. “Universal Typography.” Lecture presented at the SmashingConf, New York, New York, June 18, 2014.
  • CERN. 1990. “World Wide Web.” Accessed October 27, 2014.
  • Franz, Laura. 2012. Typographic Web Design: How to Think Like a Typographer in HTML and CSS. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Hochuli, Jost. 2008. Detail in Typography. London: Hyphen.
  • Lupton, Ellen, edit. 2014. Type on Screen: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Developers, and Students. New York: Princeton Architectural.
  • Santa Maria, Jason. 2014. On Web Typography. New York: A Book Apart.
  • Spiekermann, Erik. 2013. Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works, Third Edition. San Francisco: Adobe.
  • Typekit. 2010. “Bring Your Own Fonts to Typekit.” Accessed October 27, 2014.

Written for Graphic Design History class at George Mason University School of Art.

Designing With Miles

Miles Davis opened up my ears and introduced me to the world of jazz and fusion, but beyond that he changed the way I do my professional work. While Davis who reinvented jazz at least five times was constantly changing his musical direction, he was also refining and redefining his sound. His choices of notes were thoughtful and his phrasings were meaningful. The notes he left out were as essentials as the notes he played.

As I listened to Davis’s music, particularly his quintessential Kind of Blue, I began to change my design approach. Davis’s improvisations in “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader” and “All Blues” were complete opposite from John Coltrane’s and Cannonball Adderley’s. Whereas Coltrane and Adderley played swift, blazing solos, Davis played only the most telling notes. In a similar way, I began to see the important elements emerge in my design as I stripped away decorative ones. I came to realize that design is not only what I put in, but also what I left out.

While the process sounds easy, it took me tremendous amount of time and decision to accomplish. In many occasions, I keep turning on and off layers in Photoshop, Illustrator or even Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) to figure out whether I should leave in or take out a certain elements without over-simplifying the design. Coltrane had similar problem in his early career. He was having a hard time finding the right place to end his solo; therefore, he sought Davis for advice. Davis suggested, “Take the horn out of your mouth.”

In addition to being one of the world greatest trumpet players, Davis was also a master of communication. The recording of “Autumn Leaves” (with Adderley as the leader) is a brilliant example of Davis’s power of precision and command. After a brief intro from the quintet, which includes Hank Jones on piano, Art Blakey on drums and Sam Jones on bass, Davis cut straight to the melodic core. Each note he played on his muted trumpet struck the emotional cord: brooding, melancholy and hauntingly clear. In my own work, I explore emotional design through the practice of selection and the art of reduction. Whether working with colors, types or images, I would choose the ones that give the most emotional value to my design. I have also learned to cut out the non-essential parts and applied more detail to essence.

Using space, another design-related element, was one of the techniques Davis had acquired in his early career. With the rise of bebop in the 1950s, every jazz musician at the time wanted to play like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. They filled in as many notes as they could into their improvisation. In contrast, Davis left plenty of space in his phrasing. As a result, he let his melodic lines breathe and gave listeners a chance to absorb his music.

When I first started doing creative work, I crammed as much elements as I could into my design. My first web page was filled with at least four different typefaces, animated GIFs (Graphical Interchangeable Format) and unrelated colors. Later on, I learned the concept of using space to make the key message stronger through one of Davis’s fusion albums titled Bitches Brew. In exploring the jazz-rock territory, Davis gave his rhythm section, which was made up of four drummers, three electric keyboardists and two bassists, the freedom to work out its chaotic, organic groove. He only came in to play when he had something to say. Every time he blew his horn, however, he created the order out of the disorder. Likewise, my responsibility as a designer is to take the client contents and organize them into a logical sense. While Davis had demonstrated that space in music creates harmony and balance, white space in web design can also create harmonious layouts and free the eye from clutter. The correct use of white space not only brings out the content, but also enhances readability.

In his late career, Davis experimented with funk, rock, electric, pre-recorded orchestration and even hip-hop backbeat. The way he played opened my ears once again on the art of adaptation. Because he was such a versatile and flexible trumpeter, Davis was able to response and adapt to any musical backdrop. For instance, he was skillfully maneuvered his way around the pre-recorded arrangements in Tutu. In the hand of another musician, Tutu might sound like lightweight background music, but Davis made it into, as critic Kevin Le Gendre puts it: “a work of engrossingly fraught atmospheres.”

With the rise of smartphones, tablets and various digital devices, a designer must embrace the fluidity of the web. I learned to let go of the fixed design and abandon making mockups in Photoshop. I took on the challenge of designing web site where it actually lives. Designing in the browser feels much more natural once I get past the technicality. Davis once said, “The way you change and help music is by tryin’ to invent new ways to play.” I keep his words in mind whenever I need to learn and adapt to new technologies in the fast-changing paste of web design and development.

Written for Advanced Web Design class at George Mason University School of Art.

Sketches of Electric Miles

Miles in the Sky entered the brave new world of fusion. When Miles Davis went electric, he once again turned the jazz world up side down. He picked up new followers, but also alienated his old fans, especially those who loved the Acoustic Miles. I was a fan of Acoustic Miles, but a freak of Electric Miles. I couldn’t get enough of In a Silent Way’s funk groove that seemed to go nowhere. Without chords, the mysterious melody revealed itself in a silent-yet-stimulating way.

Bitches Brew was my go-to album after a few shots of Hennessy. I just kick back and let the surrealist, spacious rhythm takes me to another planet that is similar to James Cameron’s Avatar. When Miles soloed, his soulful, spiritual sound brings me back to earth. The brilliant contrast made Bitches Brew so far out, yet at the same time so close to my heart. What made me come back to Bitches Brew again and again was Miles’s ingenious use of space. The notes he left off were as essential as the notes he played. In A Tribute To Jack Johnson, Miles blew like a boxing champ over the hard, funk grooves.

In addition to studio sessions, Miles also recorded live. Black Beauty, which taped at the Fillmore West, epitomized the aesthetics of electric Miles. Along with the live set at the Isle of Wight, Black Beauty covered pieces from Bitches Brew such as the title track, “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” “Sanctuary”, and “Spanish Key,” but with much more intensity and ferocity that were attractive to rock fans.

Back in the studio, Miles recorded the challenging, fearless, and most misunderstood masterpiece: On the Corner. At this point, Miles already hated the word jazz and referred to his work as “social” music. On the Corner captured the street sound through chopped-up rhythm, screeching saxophone, and his own harsh trumpet. It was not an easy-to-digest work of art. As Philip Freeman puts it:

On the Corner is Miles Davis’s most difficult album. It’s like a tangle of thorns, coated in chrome and with 10,000 volts running through it. No matter how you approach it, you’re going to get a shock.

While Dark Magus funked-up groove ran like double doses of adrenaline rush, the funereal tempo on Get Up With It showed how madly Miles loved Duke and according to Greg Tate, “Beyond mourning Duke, the piece seems to suffer more from wanting to join him in the afterlife.”

By the time Miles recorded the phenomenal Agharta and Pangaea, his health problem caught up to him. As a result, he left it to the band and what we experienced from these two live set was the world’s wickest acid-funk ensemble at work. Again Greg Tate said it best:

The band’s cohesion amidst sonic chaos knows no parallel in fusion, funk, rock, or either the black or white avant garde. And while others may have achieved similar ends since, these furthermuckers (sic) were making it up night after night on the road, making new music every time they hit like they’d been possessed by whatever god or demon demands that black musicians push themselves all the way out there and then some.

After the music stopped, Miles succumbed. For five years, he didn’t pick up his horn and he substituted music with drug and women. He confessed:

Mostly during those four or five years that I was out of music, I just took a lot of cocaine (about $500 a day at one point) and fucked all the women I could get into my house…. Sex and drugs took the place that music had occupied in my life until then and I did both of them around the clock.

Miles strongest comeback was the electroacoustical, orchestral Aura. The music were miles ahead of its time Columbia didn’t know how to market it. Aura was not released until four years after it was recorded. By that time, Miles had left Columbia and moved on to Warner Bros. Tutu, debuted at the new label, marked the rebirth of the muted, mysterious and melancholy Miles.

Tutu was produced by bassist Marcus Miller. The tracks were pre-recorded. Miles just had to do his part. Unlike the Miles-Evans collaboration, in which Evans wrapped his orchestration around Miles’s trumpet, the Miles-Miller collaboration required Miles to work his way around the programmed production. Miles proved that he was the virtuoso of flow. He knew when to fall behind the beat and when to stayed on top. He knew when to cut through the melody and when to stay out of the way. Just the way he flowed made this album a must-listen.

Sketches of Acoustic Miles

Miles Davis hooked me into jazz and then pushed me beyond jazz. Miles’s ever-changing direction disoriented me when I first learned about his music. At that time, I did not pay attention to the release date of his albums. I just listened to whatever records I could get my hands on. I loved Kind of Blue and admired the Spanish tone on Sketches of Spain. I liked the spacious sound on Bitches Brew even though I didn’t get it. Then the Indian flavor of On the Corner and the dated programming on Tutu lost me. As a hip-hop fan, I couldn’t take the lyrics on Doo-Bop seriously. At that point, Miles was all over the map for me, but I always loved the way he played no matter where he was heading. His choices of notes and phrasings were thoughtful and meaningful. He understood that the notes he left out were as essential as the notes he played.

My appreciation for Miles escalated after I bought The Complete Columbia Album Collection. The day the box set arrived on my front door, I ate, worked, drove, and slept with Miles’s music for two months straight. My goal was to get through at least one album a day. I even started Sketches of Miles, a project to experiment with web design techniques and to jot down my thoughts on the albums I loved. For each album I selected, I reused its cover art and played with typography to convey my message. Listened to his albums in chronological order allowed to me see both the progression he made as well as the road he took to refine and reinvent his music.

From the start, Miles was determined to take music on his own path. At eighteen, Miles had the opportunity to play with Charlie Parker, the father of bebop and the alto saxophone virtuoso, but the high and fast style of playing didn’t impress him. Burnt out by the hot temper of bebop, Miles Davis gave birth to the cool. By slowing down the tempo, Miles focused on the lyricism in his phrasings.

Miles made a breakthrough and signed onto the Columbia roster after the Prince of Darkness cast his haunted, muted spell ’Round About Midnight. At Columbia Miles met and collaborated with the master of orchestration, Gil Evans, on three classics: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, and Sketches of Spain.

Milestones entered the world of modal jazz and prepared for the laid-back and relaxing Kind of Blue that eases its way into the heart and soul of millions. I could listen to Kind of Blue in whatever mood I was in. The power of the album was in its ability to blend itself into whatever state of mind I was in at the time. Kind of Blue also featured one of the finest sextets in the world with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley on saxophones, Bill Evans on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

The group fell apart not too long after Kind of Blue. Miles missed Coltrane because the saxophonist’s sheets of sound was a perfect complement to Mile’s economical trumpet. Someday My Prince Will Come was a great illustration of their collaboration . In contrast to Mile’s slow-burning, trapped tone, Coltrane blazed lines of fire. In trying to rebuild his band with not much success, Miles went into depression. He expressed, “[T]he music wasn’t happening and that was fucking me up.”

Indeed Miles remained unproductive until he formed his new quintet. When the young drummers Tony Williams, bassist Ron Carter and pianist Herbie Hancock joined him in the studio to record Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles was excited again because he “knew right away that this was going to be a motherfucker of a group.” When Wayne Shorter came on board, Miles headed toward a new direction starting with E.S.P. Miles Smiles made a strong case for the post bop movement, but then Nefertiti marked the last great acoustic Miles.

The Duke of Jazz

The name Duke Ellington is ubiquitous in the jazz world. He was a great bandleader, skillful composer, meticulous arranger, and extraordinary pianist. Throughout his career, which expanded over fifty years, he constantly pushed his music to a higher level. Although he never changed his styles to fit in with the new trends, Ellington had always experimented and adapted new techniques to enrich his art. From his mastery of applying the twelve-bar blues into big band, his ability to get the sounds he wants from his musicians, his inventive “Ellington effect,” his creative call-and-response method, to his interest in mood and tonality, Ellington’s compositions are not only rich in sound, but also broad in range.

One of Ellington’s special techniques is the incorporating of the twelve-bar blues into his big band’s repertoire. “Creole Love Call” demonstrates his rich compositional style as well as his perfect timing—he needed to stay within the three minutes timeframe in order to fit in one side of the 78rpm record. In the first chorus, Adelaide Hall’s horn-like scat fuses naturally into the sweet sounds of the clarinets. At 0:30 seconds into the song, Bubber Miley’s growl trumpet takes over the second chorus with a big, hypnotizing solo. At 1:00, the third chorus kicks in with Ruby Jackson’s sensuous clarinet, and then the next two choruses (1:30-2:30) take off by the high-register reed section. Hall’s wordless singing comes back at the last chorus closes out the piece.

Another classic piece that structured on the twelve-bar blues is “Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” which takes up both sides of the 87rmp record. The arrangement proves Ellington’s talent as a bandleader who could find the sounds he wanted from his musicians. From the whistle blows to the escaping-steam sounds, his players bring the train’s atmosphere right to our ears. The experience is stunning; especially the way Oscar Pettiford’s bass resembles the motion of the train, and how Cat Anderson makes his trumpet screams to create a fascinating brake sound. Other train-liked composition that is filled with Ellington effects is “Daybreak Express.” The introduction’s crescendo and accelerando warn us that we’re about to enter a fast and powerful ride. Once the train takes off, the up-tempo rhythm captures the speed of the train, which travels about a hundred miles per minute. The best part of “Daybreak Express” is how the various train’s noises come together to produce such a lively harmony. Ellington knows what kind of sounds his men can give him; therefore, he tailors his music to a particular player, and he knows when to leave room for that musician to improvise. As a result, his compositions are affected whenever his personnel changes occurred. As a skillful big bandleader, however, Ellington always finds suitable replacements. For instance, when James “Bubber” Miley was struck by a bullet at a bar, he was replaced by Cootie Williams who is well known for his distinctive muted trumpet sound. His growl technique, which could be heard at the bridge in “Ring Dem Bells,” is breathtaking. Williams is not only a great horn player, but also a wonderful scat singer with a clear and playful timbre. The teasing, which occurs right before Williams’s two-part solos in “Ring Dem Bell” between Johnny Hodges’s alto saxophone and William’s vocals, creates a fantastic musical interaction.

The call-and-response method between the instruments and the voices is one of Ellington’s specializations. In “Hot and Bothered,” James “Bubber” Miley’s trumpet and Baby Cox’s vocals scream musical notes at each other. The alto saxophone also carries on a musical conversation with the reeds in the last chorus. In “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” the trumpet phrases like a human voice complementing Ivie Anderson’s vocals. So when she sings, “It don’t mean a thing / if it ain’t got that swing, “the trumpet would finish her sentence with “doo wah, doo wah.” On first listening, I thought the male vocalist was doing the back up, not the horn.

Ellington’s interest in tone color makes him an astonishing composer with an oceanic imagination. In “Mood Indigo,” he paints a quiet picture with calming and soothing melody. The relaxed solos from Barney Bigard’s clarinet and Arthur Whetsol’s trumpet add gorgeous colors to the muted palette. In contrast to the dreamy tempo in “Mood Indigo,” “Harlem Air Shaft” captures the city vibes, in which Ellington describes, “You get the full essence of Harlem of Harlem in an air shaft. You hear fights, you smell dinner, you hear people making love, you hear the intimate gossip floating down… Jitterbugs are jumping up and down, always all over you, never below you. That’s a funny thing about jitterbugs. They’re always above you. I tried to put all that into ‘Harlem Air Shaft…'” (Davies 203). The amazing part is that Ellington and his musicians created this lively scene within three minutes. Ellington lays down the melody in the introduction; Williams’s ingenious trumpet solo takes charge in the second chorus. On third, Bigard’s clarinet bounces off the trombone section creating an engaging tune. The last chorus is even livelier with the whole band joints together to reach the climax and close out the composition. Another exhilarating piece that demonstrates Ellington’s artistic vision is “The Clothed Woman.” His intricate piano playing draws an image of a classy woman. The introduction is beautifully executed with touches of piano’s “shout,” which reflects the ragtime style. This piece showcases not only his composing skills, but also his unorthodox arrangement.

This short essay focuses only a few of his massive masterpieces. There is so much more to Ellington’s work to be studied and absorbed. With half a century of playing, writing, and refining, Ellington continued to excel and pushed his art to the limit. With the number of impressive works under his credit, Duke Ellington was one of the most significant jazz figures in the twentieth century.

Work Cited: Davis, Peter. Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya, ed London: Hentoff and Shapiro, 1955.

(Written for Jazz History Class)