Edwin C. Rae – Monument Man: Saving Art One Piece at a Time

What defines us as human beings has always been the arts. The arts are filled with our deepest wishes, dreams, desires, and our heartbreaks. They reflect the world around us and within us. All the things that make up who were are as people can be seen in the arts.

In World War II, the Nazi Party leadership tried to monopolize art through the abduction and destruction of some of the great artworks of Western Civilization in territories they conquered. At the end of the war, it was up to men like Edwin C. Rae to go find the art, where possible, and restore it to its original condition and owner. These “Monuments Men” helped to recapture the great works of Western Civilization for future generations to understand who the peoples of Western Europe are and were.

Before the war began, Edwin C. Rae was a professor of Art History at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana from 1939 to 1942. He specialized in Irish sculpture and architecture.

Dr. Rae received his dissertation at Harvard University on the architecture of Medieval Ireland. For his dissertation, Dr. Rae traveled extensively throughout Ireland taking photographs of Irish buildings. Later, after World War II, Rae’s work on his dissertation would prove invaluable in helping to restore the great Gothic works of Bavaria.

23536_53180c556825e-imagefThe War Begins
World War II broke out on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Within a year, Germany had conquered most of Europe except for Great Britain, Spain, and Switzerland. In doing so, Germany pillaged the countries it conquered of gold and art. Near the end of the war, General Eisenhower, head of the Allied Forces, made finding this art one of the great objectives of the war.

Edwin C. Rae joined the US Army in 1942. He did not see any action, but rather he initially took out the trash. Later, he worked in the background as he helped target areas to bomb in Italy, France, and Germany to avoid civilian casualties and destroying priceless buildings of antiquity. In 1945, he was assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Branch. In his diary, Dr. Rae states his objective when he was assigned to the branch.

“August 11 – 22, 1945,
ECR instated as Chief, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Branch, Detachment E1F3 APO 658, which became on 15 Aug 45 Detachment E-201, Co. F. 3d Military Government Regiment APO 403. […] Chief concern is to regularize field reports, provide better protection and surveillance of monuments, and to reestablish the German agencies on a decent, efficient basis.”

Eisenhower and the Arts
ikes-ordersAs early as 1943, General Dwight D. Eisenhower stated the importance of securing the artwork of Italy when Allied forces invaded. To help find these works of art, Eisenhower established what would be called the Monument’s Men Division which consisted of 350 men and women working almost individually to save the art of Europe.

In early 1944, the United States felt that German spotters and snipers were using the famed Abbey at Monte Cassino to target Allied position below. The Abbey, just outside of Rome, held a special place in Italy’s heart. In order to save American lives on lower ground, the US bombed the Abbey, nearly leveling it to the ground.

Eisenhower received a lot of flak in the Italian press for its destruction but Eisenhower felt it saved lives. Still, no excuse would do for the Italian people.

For Eisenhower, it was a lesson that even though he felt he was protecting his men, his job in liberating the nations of Europe was to free the people and what the people of those nations felt what was important to their heritage. In this case, the Abbey at Monte Cassino.

Those thoughts and high ideals did not last long.

Edwin C. Rae was brought in as a spotter at this point in the war. His job was to help the military avoid targets of cultural importance. His daughter Sarah said this of that period:

At the beginning of the war, they tried to pin-point the bombs. But at the end, they just didn’t care. They did saturation bombing, which was really horrible. It destroyed a lot of originals — buildings with artistic significance just decimated.”

Eisenhower’s chief objectives had to be freeing Europe and saving soldier’s lives. The pinpoint bombing was not effective.

If Rae was to help save art, he would have to do so as an attachment that went in on the ground after Allied forces had secured an area. It would be a tough task. Once an area was secure, Rae and other Monument Men in other divisions would try to find and preserve the art and buildings as well as find hidden or stolen art.

Here are two pictures of the Abbey before the bombing and after the bombing.


Between Monte Cassino and D-Day, Eisenhower had to rethink the plan. The war came first, art came second. However, in a letter sent 13 days to commanders before D-Day, you could tell that saving the art of Europe was of extreme importance to the war effort.


Later in the War
As the war was coming to a close, Eisenhower and the US forces raced to find the art in hidden spaces, mines, trains, homes of Nazi officials and other odd places. In many instances, the Nazis tried to hide the art or were in the midst of planning to destroy it.

In the picture below, Eisenhower inspects one such place, a mine.


As the war raced to an end, the Nazis weren’t the only ones with whom the Monument Men were worried about. US forces also began to steal and damage the artwork. So enraged were several Monuments Men, that they sent off a letter to Eisenhower complaining how US forces were hampering their work to find and preserve these works of art.

This letter became known as the Wiesbaden Manifest and Edwin C. Rae is one of the many Monuments Men who attached their signatures.

Rae and the Arts
Iphoto6n addition to a diary, Rae also took photographs of the Art he found in Bavaria near the end of the war. Part historian, part artist, part photographer, Rae’s images capture just exactly what the Nazis stole throughout Europe, but also stole from their own people in Bavaria.

Wherever the Monuments Men found art, they had to place posters and guards to protect the site from looters and destruction. The poster shows the importance of protecting the art for Allied forces and the local communities.

When the war ended in Europe in May of 1945, Edwin C. Rae’s job was just beginning. He had already spent three years in the US Army and the past two searching for and finding valuable works of art. Along the way, he documented what he found in his diary and through photographs. Now his hardest task lay before him.

In Bavaria, Rae’s task after the war was to restore works of art in this area of southern Germany.

The next two years of his life were spent overseeing the restoration and reconstruction of areas that had been destroyed or damaged by American and British bombing raids. Rae received several letters of commendations from the leaders of the communities he helped to restore their heritage through the restoration of art.

Why Edwin C. Rae and the Monuments Men Matter

0006840-209x300Even though Rae died in 2003, his past and his efforts were still unclear. In 2007, the Central Intelligence Agency released some information about Nazi War criminals and the hunt for them after the war. Who should be right in the middle of the hunt for them but none other than Edwin C. Rae.

Even though Edwin C. Rae left Bavaria in 1947, there was still art missing. Rae’s diary contained entries as late as 1958 that detailed his quest for art from 1947 to 1958. As late as the 1980s, stolen artwork was still being discovered. In fact, the hunt has never ended.

In some places in Europe, there are museum walls that still have artwork missing. In Krakow in Poland, an empty frame hangs missing Raphael’s “Portrait of a Young Man.”

For Rae, he made the hunt for the art and the restoration of the buildings a ten-year commitment. It would be hard to imagine the loss. and the scale of that loss, as an American. Our country was only 170 years old at the end of the war. Many of the European communities Rae helped had been around for 1400 years.

Many people in America tend to forget how young we are. As a result, our institutions, our buildings, and our art are not as ingrained in our society as they are in many parts of Europe. One lesson of his time in the service is just how much art can mean to a community. Fortunately, Edwin C. Rae helped bring some of it back to life.

39414After his time in Bavaria ended, Edwin C. Rae returned home to Illinois and continued to teach at the University of Illinois for another 30 years. He enthralled students with his knowledge of the great works of Europe that he saw firsthand during his time as a Monument Man. He established the Art History Department and was one of the founding members of a national organization called the Society of Architectural Historians.

As an art historian, Rae collected images and thoughts of his travel that were donated to the University of Illinois upon his death. His dissertation work was given to Trinity College in Ireland and is now online in a display of Irish Gothic Architecture.

His work as a Monument Man, and as an art history professor, are important because of the subject matter that he helped to save and preserve. The shame of the Nazi art thefts was that it was just one person’s view of what was important in art. The fact remains that if left alone, the Nazi view of art could have wiped out several thousand pieces of art whose importance lay to only one community or a group of people.

Edwin C. Rae’s Diary
For Rae’s children, they did not know of their father’s collections until his death.

His son Thomas spoke eloquently of the importance of the work his father, Edwin C. Rae, did during World War II as a Monument Man.

“I think it takes a few decades of distance to see the magnitude of what this meant,. No, they weren’t the ones who went into concentration camps and pulled the people out to save them. They were doing something else — they were helping to restore European culture and history.”



Comic Books and World War II: Buying into the War

Total war is a concept foreign to most Americans. The idea that war so consumes our every thought, our every action is beyond comprehension. Yet, in World War II, Americans did expend every last bit of energy to do what they could to help win the war.

To ensure the American public never forgot the concept of total war, propaganda was unleashed in many forms. Most adults saw this in the forms of posters in shops or in short films before a movie. But for children, the rise of a new form of literature that became popular in the 1930s became the gateway for propaganda to be conveyed to a younger generation. The comic book embodied the virtues of what it was to fight evil during World War II. In fact, the comic book still embodies those same virtues today.

In 1977, Author Michael Uslan stated the following about the nature of comic books:

From the 1930’s through today comic books have expressed the trends, conventions, and concerns of American life…Comics have been a showcase for national views, slang, morals, customs, traditions, racial attitudes, fads, heroes of the day, and everything else that makes up our lifestyles.

And in World War II, this is what comic books would do but about war.

At the Time
In one form or another, comic books have been around since the 1500s. However, in the United States, the comic book as we know it today arrived in the late 1930s. In June of 1938, ACTION COMICS #1 was released and children would never be the same. Superman, the character who encapsulated all that was good about America and humanity, became a star as a result of the issue. Other characters soon followed including the Human Torch, Batman, the Sub-Mariner, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, The Shield, and Captain America. 19500-004-0F2CD3D7

Superman became popular for many reasons. Like many Americans, Superman was an immigrant – albeit an alien world. You could argue Superman was the ultimate immigrant being away from his parents. Secondly, Superman espoused the virtues of hard work, justice, and truth.

Comic books also became popular for other virtues in the Great Depression. Scott A. Cord claims:

Even as a form of escape, the comic book allowed readers to fantasize about punishing real life wrongdoers. Since the Depression was the overriding concern of Americans during the 1930s, readers enjoyed seeing superheroes fight against those who exploited the bad times for their own financial benefit. For example, early characters such as the Green Lantern, Superman, and Batman often took on corrupt businessmen who mistreated poor and desperate workers in the late 1930s.

But the depression would not be the overriding issue of the day for very much longer.

Comic Go to War before the War
In 1940 and 1941, many comic books had storylines about the events of the wars in Europe and Asia. These stances before the US entered the war quite controversial. At a time when most Americans wanted nothing to do with another war in Europe, the characters in the comic books did. Many of the writers of the comic book heroes were actually Jewish and felt it their duty to influence the American public of the dangers of what was taking place overseas.

In fact, a full nine months before the war, Captain America is seen punching Hitler in the face. Writers Joe Simon and Jack Kirby received hate mail about the goals and actions of Captain America. Many were opposed to such storylines. Captain America stood out in his patriotic red, white, and blue uniform while espousing the ideals of American nationalism. Within a year after Pearl Harbor, Captain America’s views and actions about evil and what to do became the norm.

detailWhen the war began, 15 million comic books were being published a month. Two and a half years later, 25 million copies were sold a month. Superman and Captain each sold over 1 million editions a month. And the largest single customer in the period was the United States Army. Originally, the Army was buying comic books as diversions, but soon many of the soldiers became hooked on the story lines, character development, and the virtuous fight against evil and oppression.

Throughout the war, the comic book super heroes were involved in doing things to help the war effort compared to fighting the war. They did things like deliver supplies, stop spies at home, and do whatever they could do to help the soldier while in the US. The depictions of the character’s action were simplistic and good always triumphed over evil. The characters always illustrated war aims and how children could help win the war.

Superman never fought the war. You would think that he could have ended the war by himself, but the authors of the comic did not want that to happen. Instead, Clark Kent’s anxiousness to pass his physical that he accidentally uses his X-Ray Vision to read the chart in the next room. He is declared 4-F and has to do what he can (along with Superman) in Metropolis.

The Shield was a comic book hero during World War II

The Shield was a comic book hero during World War II. Notice the red, white, and blue themed uniform.

Captain America was the exception. With his sidekick 12 year old Bucky Barnes, Captain America took a first–hand role in fighting the forces of evil. What made Captain America comics different was that they were violent, in fact, shockingly violent for the time period. Characters were shot between the eyes, left beaten and bloodied, and tortured.

Another aspect that endeared Captain America to many Americans was that he always fought by the “rules” of war and won. His antagonists always “cheated” and lost.

Soon other comics followed. Individual stories of bravery and courage ended with the American soldier overcoming fear and saving the day. Meant at first to inspire those at home, the characters wound up inspiring those abroad actually doing the fighting.

Many writers of the books actually were part of the Office of War Information and the War Writer’s Board. These organizations supposedly were interested in given accurate information about what was happening overseas. The comic book became a vessel to do so.

Even the advertisements in the comic books were war related.

“Junior air raid warden kits, aircraft recognition flash cards, paper drives, money for war bonds and scrap metal drives were all supposed to help children feel like they were doing their part for the war effort.”

In addition to the superheroes, ordinary people, women, and children characters had their own comics. Boy Commandos was a group of 12 year olds out to save the world. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, served as a nurse doing her part. In addition, comics portraying real people like Eleanor Roosevelt were made showing her contributions to the war.

ww2 comic warning

As the war wound down, so did many of the characters. Superman and Lois got hitched and had super babies, Batman went back to fighting the master villains of Gotham and in 1956, Captain America was cancelled.

Many soldiers who had read comics overseas found them to be a comfort item on their return. Maybe it was escapism, maybe it was a habit, but either way they were a solace to many of the soldiers who would later introduce the comics to their children. By 1947, comic books sold 60 million issues a month.

By the early 1950s, the so called “Golden Age of Comics” characters had transitioned to mundane activities. With no evil left to fight, comics like Archie, Veronica, Jughead, and Richie Rich became the mainstream from the middle 1950s through the middle 1960s.

Comic books in World War II played a significant role in education a young populace before, during and after the war. From Captain America punching Hitler in the face 9 months before Pearl Harbor to encouraging the war effort on the home front through actions and advertisements, these pieces of art helped educate a country in a total war.


The most surprising influence the comics had was on those who actually participated in combat. The books were seen as something to take their mind off what was to come and what had taken place. They were cheap, easy to carry, and the comic itself didn’t require a college education to read. It was part entertainment, part instructional manual, and part psychologist for the solider.

While the comic books did display propaganda, it was also commercialism at its finest. Comic books were big money and portended the youth culture to come in the 1950s. The comic book actually became a part of the war itself. It showed what children and young men could do to help the effort through the character’s actions and through advertisements in the comic itself. Children used the comic to keep up to date on what was happening even though most comics took months to develop and illustrate.

The comic books published during the war laid the foundation for later comic books of the 1960s and film and TV today. Growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, my favorite comics and characters all had their roots in World War II. Captain America, Nick Fury, and the X-Men were the comics that I read as a boy and teenager and are based on, and influenced by, those comics and events from the era. Even looking at what movies to see this summer, or TV shows that I watch, they all come from comic books. For me, there is some morality I can agree with in their actions. There’s a goodness there, a sacrifice, first envisioned some 75 years ago that still resonates today.

Sources Used – Mostly PDF Files: Click Here

Steppenwolf: Redefining Theatre

Chicago has always been known to outsiders as the second city. In comparison to New York City, Chicago always fell second in every

Gary Sinise

Gary Sinise

aspect of modern living and culture. Incorporated a city in 1837, Chicago was the fastest growing city in the history of the world until a few years ago.  After a fire in 1871, the city reemerged with steel buildings and the modern skyline was born. Chicago, after all, was an innovator in a great many things because of its location far from the eastern shores. By the 1970s, Chicago also saw a new innovative theater troupe emerge out of a church basement. Taking its name from the Herman Hesse novel, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company would reshape theater in Chicago and across the country.

What made Steppenwolf Theatre different at the time of its inception was its emphasis on ensemble acting. For many years on Broadway, the stars and directors drove the business. Big names meant big business. Even in regional theater, an actor could be lured to act in the middle of nowhere if enough money was involved. Chicago, on the other hand, was not in the middle of nowhere. However, Steppenwolf’s roots would be. Highland Park is located on the shore of Lake Michigan, north of Evanston. But it would not be Evanston and Northwestern’s long history of actors where Steppenwolf would draw its actors. Instead, Illinois State University (ISU) in Bloomington-Normal was the foundation.

Beginning in 1974, Rick Argosh and Leslie Wilson went to Gary Sinise, a high school classmate, about staging Paul Zindel’s And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little. Over the course of the next year, the troupe put on three plays in a basement of church in Deerfield, Illinois: Grease, The Glass Menagerie, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Argosh, who had been reading Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, christened the name of the ensemble. Sinise brought in former classmates Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney, then students at ISU. Kinney, Perry, and Sinise enjoyed their group so much that they decided when Perry and Kinney finished college, the three would pursue the ensemble group full-time.

Gary Sinise (on the right) in Rosecrantz and

Gary Sinise (on the right) in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

In February 1975, the three founded Steppenwolf as a non-profit organization. The group began its season in Immaculate Conception Church and School in Highland Park, Illinois. The 88 seat facility saw the ensemble grow from the three founders to include H.E. Baccus, Nancy Evans, Moira Harris, John Malkovich, Laurie Metcalf and Alan Wilder. Kevin Rigdon was hired as the set designer. 1976 saw the company put on six plays.

A Chicago Tribune review of Steppenwold productions of The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year and The Dumb Waiter

A Chicago Tribune review of Steppenwolf productions of “The Loveliest Afternoon of the Year” and “The Dumb Waiter”

Early reviews were mixed. The company often put on two plays in one night. Some were good, and some were bad, often on the same twin bill. John Malkovich’s acting caught the early praise of local papers then the Chicago Tribune  in 1976. In 1977, the company kept expanding its ensemble to include Joan Allen. The company tended to stage 6 productions a year and the ensemble slowly grew to include names like Glenne Headly, Rondi Reed, Amy Morton, and John Mahoney.

In an interview with Tribune critic Larry kart, H.E. Baccus summed up what made Steppenwolf different from other theater companies:
baccus quote

In 1980, the company moved to 134-seat theater at the Jane Addams Hull House Center on North Broadway in Chicago. The move brought with it more spotlights, a bigger audience, more press, and more plays. With Gary Sinise named artistic director, the ensemble produced True West in 1982. The production would wind up in New York and Malkovich would wind up a star who drew attention to himself and the ensemble.

John Malkovich in the early years of Steppenwolf

John Malkovich in the early years of Steppenwolf (1977)

Throughout the 1980s, word of mouth spread about the intensity of the acting, the stark set design, and the unique nature of the plays. In 1982, the company moved to a theater on North Halstead, creeping closer and closer to downtown. In 1985, the company won a Tony Award for Regional Theatre Excellence. In 1988, the company broke open the doors and made itself a nationally recognized company for its production of Grapes of Wrath. Reinterpreting Steinbeck made a national name out of Sinise and brought name recognition for the entire ensemble.

In 1991, the company built its current theater, also on North Halstead. Sinise and Malkovich began to do movies and became stars in their own right on the big screen but they never left the ensemble. Joan Allen, Laurie Metcalf (Roseanne), and John Mahoney (Frasier) saw steady work as well in the movies and on TV. In 1998, President Clinton awarded the company the 1998 National Medal of Arts.

Here founding member Jeff Perry and Ensemble Members Laurie Metcalf, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed talk about the early years. It is a very interesting and funny interview and gives a lot of details of what it took to get the company off the ground.

The Monuments Men: Book Review

Mmen This summer has been anything but quiet. Between the thunderstorms (which seem to occur every day), the Blackhawks, the noise in Washington, and the floundering of my Cubs, I have not had much time, or patience, to write. But for the first summer in 7 years, I have had time to read. It is what I plan on doing a lot this summer.

The first book on the list is The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter. I enjoyed it very much! It is the second history book (Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails) in a row that I read that was not written by a historian. It gives the reader a fresh approach to history.

The book itself follows the exploits of several men and one woman who tried to save and salvage the art of Europe (mainly French, Belgian, and Dutch) in the last days of World War II from Nazi control.  The department known as MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) traveled along the front lines in Europe trying to find stashes of art the Germans hid.

The book starts out in the years before the war detailing the lives of the main characters who shape the book. When the war starts, three people shape the story and its contents: George Stout, James Rorimer, and Rose Valland – a French underground spy. When World War II begins, the two authors chronicle the Nazi agenda to strip the conquered territories of wealth including art. Most interesting is the argument that the Nazis saw the value in art as a status symbol but could not analyze its cultural and abstract worth. This is done through the collection of art by the highest ranking members of the Nazi Party, but mainly Herman Goring’s acquisitions.

The book spends most of its time detailing Rorimer’s and Stout’s races against time after D-Day. The authors describe the attempts by the Nazis to make it back into Germany with the looted works, and then the attempts to hide the art so the Americans, French, British, or Soviets could not get their hands on it. However, Rose Valland, working undercover, kept track of the destinations of trains taking the art out of France.

The second half of the book reads at a break-neck speed as the Monuments Men race to find the art before the Nazis, in some cases, could destroy it or hide it. Most interesting is Rose Valland’s ability/inability to trust the Americans to do right by the art. It is tense at several points in the book as Rose wavers on her decision.

The whole time I was reading it, I kept thinking that this topic would make a great NHD topic, and it would. Several of the Monuments Men were from Illinois including two from Chicago. Another interesting aspect is that these men tended to work solo. Rarely did they work in concert with another Monuments Man. There was no division specifically set up. Rather, each Monuments Man was embedded within a division. I also found it interesting to read the role Eisenhower played in the preservation of the art. Here is his letter he wrote as the soldiers made their way though Italy first, then, western Europe in 1944.


The book also has a nice collection of photographs at the end. I kept finding myself Googling the names of the people involved and also the names of the artwork (I read the book on my phone). The character who kept my attention most was none other than Rose Valland – a supposed nondescript person – who was able to work amidst the Nazis in Paris during the war. In that time, she drew suspicion from both sides while working for the resistance.

Rose Valland

The French Woman and Spy, Rose Valland

The Nazis go to great lengths to try to keep the art for themselves including hiding it in mines with booby traps, salt, running water, and Nazi soldiers. The race to find the art takes up the second half of the book and it is hard to put down. Hitler’s role and philosophies about art are also well detailed. The book only covers the Monuments Men in Western Europe. A second book, Saving Italy, describes the efforts there.

The Monuments Men, while a misleading title,  is a very good read and I highly recommend it.

For further reading

This site chronicles what the Monuments men did and lists every single soldier with a brief biography.

This site is the author’s site that also includes the companion book called Saving Italy.

Miles Davis and Making Bitches Brew

I came to develop a love of jazz in college in 1983 or 1984. I am pretty sure it started with the Pat Metheny Group release Offramp. In Macomb, Illinois, where I went to college, there was this little record store called the Co-Op. You could smell the incense from the outside. When you walked in, you could cut a hole in the smell and hear the latest cool sounds in music. And there was a lot of music to discover for a 20-21 year old young guitarist/future history teacher.

At the time, I knew very little about jazz aside from New Orleans Jazz. Once I bought the album, I began a slow study of the great American art form. Eventually, I found my way to recordings by Miles Davis. It was through the biopic “Bird” by Clint Eastwood that I discovered the roots of the history of Miles. I knew who Miles Davis was in the late 1970s and 1980s, but I was not, nor I am now, a fan of that era of his work. However, for over 20 years Miles Davis made the most innovative form of music and reshaped jazz and rock. Through albums such as “Birth of the Cool,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Sketches of Spain,” and “Kind of Blue,” Miles Davis was “the man” before anyone else. MilesDavis2

America in the late 1960s was changing. The war in Vietnam polarized the country and the Civil Rights movement had seen successes and failures aplenty. But music had also undergone a massive transformation in the 1960s. And by music, I mean rock and roll. And by transformation, I mean sonic transformation. The electric guitar in 1969 was nothing like the electric guitar of 1960. In between the instrument was beefed up with massive amps, distortion pedals, feedback, flange, reverb, echo, and any other sound you could possibly want. Jimi Hendrix was shattering allusions of what the instrument could do. Folk artist Bob Dylan even went electric. Jazz in the mid 1960s was slow to resist. You might see an electric bass here or there, but for the most part, the old acoustic instrumentation was still the foundation of the ensemble.  Miles Davis changed all that.

In 1969, for the recording of In a Silent Way, Miles assembled a collection of the best young players of the era to record the record on one date in January. Keyboardists Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, and Herbie Hancock all played together with bassist Dave Holland, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, drummer Tony Williams, and guitarist John McLaughlin (essentially a who’s who of what would become 70s and 80s jazz). The record was two songs – each covering one side of the album. The title track, written by Joe Zawinul, was the impetus for the recording. By using electrical instruments, Miles had shifted the paradigm of modern jazz. The album is seen as only the beginning of the transformation. In a Silent Way was not a full on rock record, it still was Jazz at its core, just electrified. The culmination would come on the next record, Bitches Brew.

The story for Bitches Brew begins in the summer of 1969. That summer Miles toured behind In a Silent Way and his road band was quite different that his studio band. First, Jack DeJohnette manned the drumkit. Jack was a much more propulsive and elements of rock could be heard in his playing. In addition, percussionist Don Alias was brought on board. With him, Alias brought in Afro-centric rhythms unfamiliar to jazz. Combined with the electrification, another bassist, a second drummer, and bass clarinet player Bennie Maupin, a total of 12 musicians showed up to record the sessions over three days in August of 1969.

Producer Teo Macero oversaw the recording and assembling of what would be a double album containing 94 minutes of the most revolutionary jazz music ever created. For Miles, being a band leader was like being a story teller. Each musician or character had a story to tell. The problem going into tumblr_m087bajKvE1r2uguoo1_500the sessions was that he was unsure of what story he wanted to tell. The band had only rehearsed the first half of the title track, but they had played several songs on the tour that summer including “Spanish Key,” “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down,” and “Sanctuary.” Contrary to popular opinion, the songs were somewhat fleshed out before recording. Keyboardist Joe Zawinul had written ten songs for the record. Miles had picked the ones he liked along with other selections by himself and Wayne Shorter.

Recording the songs was somewhat unique. Second drummer Lenny White describes the sessions:

During the session we’d start a groove, and we’d play and then Miles would point to John McLaughlin and John would play for a while, and then Miles would stop the band. Then we’d start up again and he’d point to the keyboards, and someone would do another solo. All tracks were done in segments like that, with only the piano players possibly having a few written sketches in front of them […] Bitches Brew was like a big pot and Miles was the sorcerer. He was hanging over it, saying, ‘I’m going to add a dash of Jack DeJohnette, and a little bit of John McLaughlin, and then I’m going to add a pinch of Lenny White. And here’s a teaspoonful of Bennie Maupin playing the bass clarinet.’ He made that work. He got the people together who he thought would make an interesting combination […] It was a big, controlled experiment, and Miles had a vision that came true.

Over the three days, the process continued. When the recording was complete, the musicians went back to Miles’s house and listened to the unedited versions of the tracks. When the record came out in January 1970, the tracks sounded nothing like the musicians remembered. Producer Teo Macero armed with tape, glue, and an editor, restructured most tracks completely. Macero explains the process:

I had carte blanche to work with the material. I could move anything around and what I would do is record everything, right from beginning to end, mix it all down and then take all those tapes back to the editing room and listen to them and say: ‘This is a good little piece here, this matches with that, put this here,’ etc, and then add in all the effects—the electronics, the delays and overlays. [I would] be working it out in the studio and take it back and re-edit it—front to back, back to front and the middle somewhere else and make it into a piece. I was a madman in 12756763the engineering room. Right after I’d put it together I’d send it to Miles and ask, ‘How do you like it?’ And he used to say, ‘That’s fine,’ or ‘That’s OK,’ or ‘I thought you’d do that.’ He never saw the work that had to be done on those tapes. I’d have to work on those tapes for four or five weeks to make them sound right.

In the review by Rolling Stone, the magazine states:

Miles’ music bubbles and boils like some gigantic cauldron. As the musical ideas rise to the surface, the listener also finds his thoughts rising from the depths with a new clarity and precision. Miles is an invaluable companion for those long journeys you take into your imagination.

But don’t let my cerebral bent influence your listening. Whatever your temperament, Bitches’ Brew will reward in direct proportion to the depth of your own involvement.

The record redefines what jazz can be, of what music can be. It combines different and disparate elements of music. The fusion movement was born and many rock bands would try to recapture the sense of adventure and discovery found on the record. The record comes alive with the incredible rhythm section of 2 drummers and 2 bassists, combined with the percussion of Don Alias. All the while the electronic keyboardists percolate and provide pallets and templates for Davis, Wayne Shorter, John McLaughlin, Bennie Maupin, and themselves to tell their stories.
At the core of the sound is what appears to be a simple structure of a groove made up of two to three chords with a solo on top. What makes the music so complex is the rhythmic structure. Still, some 40 years later, jazz has not had another turning point in the form to come close to this record. Bitches Brew was a rock record in its attitude and electrified sounds, jazz in its musical structures and solos, but it was more than the sum of its parts. It was new music for a new era. The musicians who played with Miles would go on to lead their own bands. Shorter and Zawinul would form Weather Report. Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock would form their own bands while John McLaughlin would form his own project, the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Each musician defined the fusion era and influenced many jazz and rock musicians by playing on Bitches Brew as much as they did in their own bands.
As a listener, I still find the grooves scintillating, spellbinding, and mesmerizing. Many times over the past few summers I have put Bitches Brew on the iPod for a bike ride and disappeared into the northern Illinois countryside. Bitches Brew is still a record ahead of its time. Even after 40 years, the music sounds so fresh and timeless. This is a particular favorite of mine.
Here is an interesting video of how the album and band came to be.
For further reading:
Quincy Troupe’s bio of Miles is essential
Quotes of Lenny White and Teo Macero come from:
Rolling Stone Review:

The Concept Album: A Brief History

Two weeks ago on June 12, 2012, the nerd within me awoke with the release of Rush’s Clockwork Angels. While musically current, the collection of songs lyrically tells the maturation of a boy, who through a series of adventures (some tragic), questions his faith and the universe run by a rigid watchmaker, all the while, evolving from a boy into a man. Listening to it, I tend to think of the whole concept of the album as an allegory telling the life story of drummer Neil Peart. After a few brief spins, I was transported back in time to 30+ years ago when the concept album was once standard practice for the band.

The concept album is not new, but in today’s disposable music industry, it is quite a risk for band to release a concept album. In a music world driven by the single on iTunes, I find it refreshing for Rush to take a chance like this. One could easily argue that this is their first full length concept album. While 2112 and Hemispheres are both considered concept albums, only one side of the records is conceptual.

For history, the original concept album dates back to Woody Guthrie’s Dustbowl Ballads. While somewhat conceptual by today’s standards, it was unique for it’s time. All the songs were about one topic although the record does not have a main character or storyline that was in every song. Released in 1940, the record was highly influential on future folk songwriters Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan as well as Bruce Springsteen. The album contained the now classic, “Do Re Mi.”

But it was not folk or popular music that turned the concept album into an art form, it was Jazz. Beginning in the late 1940s, Jazz artists began experimenting with sounds and styles. These concepts became the theme of the record. Whether it was rhythms, chord progressions, or scales, jazz was at the forefront of the movement. Two of the biggest innovators were Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis. Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and the Wee Small Hours were ahead of their time. Davis, on the other hand, tended to reinvent himself several times throughout the fifties and sixties with Birth of the New Cool, A Kind of Blue, Porgy and Bess, and Skteches of Spain. John Coltrane would also join in with Giant Steps.

The 1950s also saw the rise of Rock and Roll. Rock did not initially lend itself to the concept album. However, some tried liked the Ventures. But the album that started the hey day of concept albums actually was not a concept album. The Beach Boys released Pet Sounds in 1966. The sounds on the record would heavily influence the Beatles. Ironically, Pet Sounds had been heavily influences by the Beatles Rubber Soul. What Pet Sounds did was to sonically challenge the Beatles to come up with unique sounds for what would become Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Depending on which you Beatle you ask, you could have gotten four different responses what Sgt. Pepper was all about. But one thing most people can agree on was that rock and roll could be art. Ideally, the record was a headphone record as it was one of the first records to use an 8 track versus a four track recording. The experimentation with sound became the defining mark of the album culminating in the epic song, “A Day in the Life.”

Soon after, most bands tried to make their own concept album. A plethora of bands joined in. A whole new movement emerged in the late 1960s. Most of the classic rock and roll bands began at art schools throughout England. The style of rock was changing. Pete Townshend of The Who went a step further and created the Rock Opera, Tommy. Art rock was fully born. Bands such as Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, and others sprang up and made some great music.

Throughout the early 197s, each of the aforementioned bands recorded long form songs and made concept album after concept album. They knew no other way. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon came to epitomize a new high in concept album history. Unfortunately, Tales from Topographic Oceans by Yes signaled a death knell for the art rock movement. A double album, Tales contained four songs – one for each album side. In response, punk music rebelled against the nature of the art rock movement. But the art rock movement did not stop.

The concept album reached its high water mark with Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Wall was meant to symbolize walls put up between people, The Wall came to symbolize walls put up by authority and dualistically fit with the Cold War Berlin Wall.

Throughout the 1980s, the concept album began to wane as the influence of MTV began. From time to time, the occasional concept album emerged but few captured the public’s interest. Marilyn Manson, Green Day, Dream Theater, Jay Z, and other bands have tried their hands at the concept album.

For me, most of my spare time in the 1970s and early 1980s was spent listening to concept albums. My favorites will most likely differ from yours.

For example, I love two concept albums by Genesis. One is The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and the other is Duke. For me, Duke is hugely important as we just moved from the only home I had known after my freshman year of high school to western Illinois, three hours away. In the coming years, these two records were two of my best friends. I adore these records because of where I was in my life and what they did for me.

I always liked the concept album. Whether the album had a lyric that told the story throughout the record, or whether it was a stylistic sonic choice, I associate those type of records as the best. I can still picture myself sitting around Stuart Jackson’s dining room table, smoking cigars, listening to Rush, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Maybe it was all just the late 70s, early 80s teen lifestyle, but it was enjoyable. It was art, creative, and fun.

Now, for me, Clockwork Angels is easy to listen to. The music is great, the songs are great, but the story is even greater. It takes me back to many memories of my young adulthood…As the song’s opus, “The Garden,” concludes

The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen
(c) 2012 Anthem Records
Lyric by Neil Peart

The Camera at War: Part 2

Several years ago, I wrote about the power of photography in war in this blog. The Camera at War post is one of my favorite posts. And in teaching Vietnam, it is one of my favorite lessons to teach. The VHS video I used for 17 years had started to deteriorate. For the past two years, I have had to make adjustments to the lesson and was unable to show the video. I felt I was shorting my students.

Today, while trolling YouTube for a Malcolm X video to download, I stumbled upon the Camera at War finally being posted on YouTube. I could not download the video fast enough. The Camera at War was produced by BBC2 in the mid-1990s. Many of its participants and photographers have since passed away. It is an emotional video to watch as these were the images of my youth. For my students, it is a unique experience for them to see the images I saw as a young child from six years old to twelve. I will still have to wait three weeks to show it, but this morning, I am really excited!

DISCLAIMER: The following links are for educational purposes only

Hopefully, the videos will stay uploaded on to YouTube for a while!