WaPo on "The Birth (And Death) of the Cool"

WaPo on "The Birth (And Death) of the Cool"

Brendan Wolfe
Brendan Wolfe

December 18th, 2009, 1:05 pm #1

In this morning's Post, Carolyn See reviews Ted Gioia's "The Birth (And Death) of the Cool," which features a chapter on Bix Beiderbecke. From the review:

"The author is a musician, music historian and very active businessman. Thus, he's looking at the world through a pair of spectacles with two very different lenses: jazz and commerce. As far as I can see, his perceptions and insights about jazz, the actual 'birth of the cool' (as a mind-set as well as a point of view about musicianship) are flawless. His chapters on Beiderbecke, Young and Davis are what reviewers like to call lapidary; they are jewel-like, particularly the pages about Miles playing with Charlie Parker in the early New York days. The prose is so strong, simple and evocative that it brings the reader almost to tears with longing. What wonderful nights! What insanely terrific music! What a marvelously enchanted meeting of minds and sensibilities! The book is worth much more than its price for these three chapters alone."

Read the full review here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/co ... 04289.html
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

December 19th, 2009, 7:33 pm #2


.... that Bix was "cool." Neither in the style of his playing, nor in his personality (of course, as far as I can tell from what people who knew him said about him). Ted deserves a complete explanation since what he wrote in his book is thoughtful and significant. It will be very difficult and time-consuming to provide a satisfactory response. I hope to be able to do it. For the time being, I will provide a brief account.

<strong>Bix as a predecessor of "cool jazz."</strong> Perhaps in some of his recordings, Bix displays the restraint that has been taken to be a characteristic, a fingerprint if you like, of the "cool jazz" style. But that is far from what is needed to identify Bix as a cat who blows cool. Restraint is just one aspect of Bix's style (and not always; think of "From Monday On," most of his recordings with His Gang, etc) First, note that Bix's playing is filled with strong and deep emotions - what Sudhalter describes as layered and complex. Second, and this is very important, there is what I would call the "content" of his music, new melodies improvised over the chord structure of the tune, and new improvisations in every take. Just the fact that he did not play the same thing twice shows, to me at least, that he was not approaching his music in a cerebral (cool) manner, but in an impetuous way, conveying what he was feeling at different times. I imagine that people describe Bix's style as restrained, in part, because Bix is often compared with Louis Armstrong, the other cornetist/genius of the 1920s. Of course, in comparison with hot Louis the extrovert, Bix is cold and introvert. Would we view Bix as "cool" if Louis had not dominated jazz since the 1920s? I don't know, but I doubt it.

<strong>Bix as a cool guy. </strong>To me, a cool guy is supremely confident and gregarious, his life is focused in the external world, not in his internal life. A cool guy is not consumed by a passion for his chosen field of endeavor; on the conrrary, his life is filled with superficial fun. My vision of a cool guy is Paul Newman in "Hud." Although Bix was friendly, I doubt that he was gregarious. Bix was consumed by his passion for music, almost to the exclusion of other activities - several people who knew Bix are witnesses of Bix's fascination, perhaps obsession, with music. Bix was not very talkative. If we take Sylvester Ahola's recollection of Bix ("I am a musical degenerate"), we would infer that Bix  was not a confident guy. Thus, Bix lacks several of the attributes that I view essential in describing a guy a s cool.

I hope this provides a preliminary explication of why I don't view Bix as a cool guy, either musically or in his personality. If I have a chance, and if necessary, I will expand.

Albert
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Brendan Wolfe
Brendan Wolfe

December 19th, 2009, 9:28 pm #3

Thanks for the response, Albert. Have you read Gioia's book, or at least his chapter on Bix? I ask because you don't seem interested in the terms that Gioia lays out in his argument regarding both cool jazz and, more generally, the cool aesthetic. I acknowledge that it's pretty vague to talk about what's cool and what's not cool, and I think it's perfectly valid for you to have your own idea of cool (in this case, Newman in Hud) and then assert that Bix ain't that. But with all respect it's not a valid response to Gioia's argument. He defines cool, then argues that Bix is that. I wonder, then, how you would respond to the specifics of what Gioia is arguing about Bix & cool.

As best I can, I'll summarize his argument.

In defining the white jazz player of the nineteen-twenties and beyond as "cool" he highlights the following:

* He was "the outsider among outsiders," this self-imposed alienation putting him at a "far remove from social norms and expectations";

* Even if he's a child of privilege, he sees himself as misunderstood, an underdog;

* Even if he achieves great success, he still sees himself as misunderstood, an underdog;

* His art dictates his response to the world (e.g., he is spontaneous and flouts rules);

* "He values experience the way a banker hordes capital";

Gioia then says that Bix is a fascinating example of this "cool" character.

* He's at odds with the values of his bourgeois family (re jazz, school, alcohol);

* "He prefers to find himself, to follow his own muse";

* "He embraces the most raucous and uninhibited music he can find, not just for how it sounds, but also as a symbol of his way of life";

* He embraces art and intellect (Gioia cites the Eddie Condon anecdote about Bix reading Proust);

* His early life circumstances are unpromising in terms of artistic greatness, yet "he not only transformed himself, but exerted a magnetic pull on those around him";

(Still does, I'd argue!)

Gioia mentions that the "ultimate test of cool, of course, is the ability to maintain the pose even in the face of physical danger," and then retells Mezz Mezzrows anecdote regarding Bix drinking contentedly on the tracks despite an oncoming train. And Gioia acknowledges Bix's singular obsession with his music.

So this is how he argues that Bix was a "cool guy." He then proceeds to argue that he also was a progenitor of cool music. To define him as such, he highlights the following:

* Cool jazz would have been considered an oxymoron in the nineteen-twenties;

* But the distinction between Louis Armstrongs approach to jazz and Bixs approach is where one first sees the idea of cool in jazz. Armstrong is about virtuosity, Bix about tone.

* Bix helps to invent the jazz ballad style, which "aims more to move the listener's heart than the dancer's feet";

* Bix's solos still have edge and syncopation, "but there is something else, a looser conception, more relaxed and tender, that breaks free of precedents and instead looks toward the future";

* Bix influences (either directly or indirectly) such musicians as Bing Crosby, Artie Shaw, and Lester Young -- helping critics to draw a line from Bix to the cool jazz of the late thirties and forties (this is especially true with Young);

* Bix's piano music explores "the same pathways that the cool jazz musicians of the fifties would later travel";

By Gioia's definition of cool, Bix's obsession with improvisation makes him cool; it doesn't prevent him from being cool, as you have it. His cerebral approach makes him cool; it doesn't prevent him from being cool. That Bix is an introvert compared to Louis Armstrong is the whole point. The distinction between their approaches to the music helped define the hot and cool styles for future generations.

I write all this not to endorse Ted Gioia's argument. I just want us to be on the same page regarding what he actually writes.

In the meantime, happy holidays to you, and I hope youre not snowed under up in New York like we are down in Virginia.
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

December 20th, 2009, 7:51 pm #4


<span>Of course I read the chapter on Bix, as well as several other chapters in The Birth (and Death) of the Cool. I also read Teds chapter in The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Edited by Bill Kirchner, 2000. <span> </span>In this chapter, Ted already brings up Bix as a practitioner of cool. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /></span>

<span>One of the reasons I did not directly spoke to Teds definition of "cool" is that there is no crisp statement in his book of what are the characteristic aspects of the "cool style" (as a personality). I am not the first one to make this point. I quote from the review in </span>

<span>http://www.citypaper.com/arts/story.asp?id=19283</span>

<span>"In </span><span>this regard, one challenge that we face is that he never offers a concrete definition of "cool." The following is about as close as he comes, first in the positive, then in the negative: </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span> </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span>Cool was defined by its reliance on image and irony, by its artifice and playful fluidity. It was marked, above all, by an outward focus on trends and fashions. The notion of lifestyle--a term that hardly existed outside of academic literature during the first half of the twentieth century--became of paramount import during the Age of Cool, and the idea that once could shape one's persona and way of living as though they were works of art (a foreign concept to most people during the Great Depression) became widespread. Postcool, in contrast, is built on a new earnestness and directness, a celebration of simplicity and authenticity. Irony is out; plainspokenness is in. The natural and down-to-earth are preferred to the glitzy and fashionable. The real is valued above the contrived, honesty above artifice. Communications--from the simple text message to the spin-doctoring of prominent pundits on the boob tube--are quicker and to the point. Postcool is less exciting than cool, but more practical and results oriented. It's less malleable and fluid, but far more predictable in its behavior patterns.

Yet the shift to a postcool mentality is not without its downsides. Above all, many problems are created when society loses its cool. The directness and bluntness of postcool life are only a step away from outright hostility and confrontation."<span> </span></span>

<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span> </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span>If "It (cool) was marked, above all, by an outward focus on trends and fashions" is taken as a crucial aspect of Teds definition of "cool," then certainly, Bix was not cool. Bix's key characteristic was his inward focus on the music within himself, and how he would express such music through his playing of cornet and piano. I don't see any interest on the part of Bix on "trends and fashions."</span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span> </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span>Going on the postcool, Ted writes that it is "a celebration of simplicity and authenticity" and The real is valued above the contrived, honesty above artifice. Well, that is exactly what Bix did. His music was authentic, honest. There was supreme creativity and authencitiy in Bixs music; he did not have to hide behind artifice.</span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span> </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span>I disagree with one of</span><span> <span> </span></span><span>Teds statements that you quote in your post, namely, "</span><span>He embraces the most raucous and uninhibited music he can find, not just for how it sounds, but also as a symbol of his way of life." I dont think so. I believe that Bix had such a passion for music, at first about jazz, that he embraced it for how it would fit his sensibility, not as a "symbol of his way of life." I dont think that Bix wanted to give a message about a way of life when he devoted his life to music; it was the manifestation of his great passion, obsession if you like, for creating music. </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span> </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span>Ted seems to paint Bix as a rebel, an outsider. I disagree. Bix was not rebelling against the bourgeois society of his parents, did not go outside their mores for sake of becoming an outsider; Bix was merely following his own inner, powerful <span> </span>driving forces towards creating music.</span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span> </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span>"Cool" as a personality trait finds its origins in the cool jazz movement, and as such it has a fairly well understood meaning, restrained, detached, cerebral. Today, I believe that cool guys are viewed as charismatic individuals, admired by<span> </span>many, not because of particular achievements in music (or other forms of art, or science), but because of their persona, individuals who seek female partners and are highly successful at seducing them, they display a certain amount of disdain and a great amount of self-confidence. </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span> </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span>In my previous post I used this view of "cool" and concluded that Bix certainly was not cool. I supplement my previous discussion with the present posting where I discuss Bix in the light of Teds concept of "cool." I still thing that Bix was not a cool guy. He was a passionate guy, consumed by his obsession with music. I cant remember who it was that said that Bix didnt want us (musicians) to have any fun, all he wanted to do was try new things. As I wrote in my brief biography of Bix in the main Bixography website, <span></span></span><span>By all accounts, Bix was a kind, gentle, and generous man. He was an individual of few words, introspective, and unconcerned by the superficial details and demands of daily routine. Music was the all-consuming focus of his life, the essence of his being; and in music, he wrought his everlasting legacy.</span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"> 
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;">Albert
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Brendan Wolfe
Brendan Wolfe

December 20th, 2009, 8:35 pm #5

I'm glad to know you've read the chapter, Albert. And I agree that "cool" is frustratingly difficult to define, no less for Ted Gioia than for anyone else. But I guess if we're going to talk about Gioia's argument about Bix being cool in the way that white jazzmen were cool -- Gioia sees Bix as the classic example -- then to turn to another part of his book to find another definition of cool and then argue that this definition doesn't apply to Bix ... well, I would say that doesn't make much sense.

Cool didn't just pop out of Zeus's head one day, fully formed and ready to take over American culture. It came from somewhere. Gioia argues that it came from Bix, among others. But that is not the same as arguing that Bix exhibited all the traits and behaviors that we now associate with cool (a focus on trends and fashions are two that you mentioned). It is to say that white jazzmen, and Bix in particular, exhibited the traits and behaviors that Gioia lists and describes (and that I summarized), and these developed into the cool aesthetic as we know it today. That being said, I would encourage you to respond to the particulars of what Gioia actually argues in the chapter about Bix. I'm curious to know what you think.

You do take issue with Gioia's claim that Bix "embraces the most raucous and uninhibited music he can find, not just for how it sounds, but also as a symbol of his way of life." Like you, I question this statement, although unlike you, I tend to question our ability to know for sure one way or the other. Regardless, I think this is an example of what I think is a problem with Gioia's argument about Bix -- he confuses the historical and the legendary Bix. Or maybe it's better to say that at times he conflates them. The legendary Bix is the progenitor of cool. No doubt. All those anecdotes from Eddie Condon and Mezz Mezzrow and Wingy Manone and Ralph Berton and Hoagy Carmichael -- who knows whether any of them were true. Regardless, they paint Bix as something of a cool cat and one, Gioia points out, who would not have been nearly as out of place in the sixties as he was in the twenties.

You also write that Gioia "seems to paint Bix as a rebel, an outsider. I disagree. Bix was not rebelling against the bourgeois society of his parents, did not go outside their mores for sake of becoming an outsider; Bix was merely following his own inner, powerful driving forces towards creating music."

Your focus here is on Bix's motivations for going outside the mores of his parents, which suggests that you acknowledge that he did, in fact, go outside those mores. He did this by not focusing on school, by not finding a more conservative profession, by not staying in Davenport. He did this by being arrested for a "Lewd & lascivious act" (it hardly matters whether he was guilty; that such an arrest ever happened was a kind of transgression). And he certainly did this by drinking and then drinking some more until he collapsed and died. Presumably this was not how he was raised! Of course, you might be right that he was driven by "his own inner, powerful driving forces." I'll bet he was. But this makes him no less a rebel, no less an outsider. For my money, it makes him more of one.

Anyway, I'd be curious to hear you expand on this idea that Bix was not an outsider.

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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

December 21st, 2009, 1:37 pm #6

<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;">It makes sense to me. If one is going to write a treatise on cool, then it is not appropriate, in my opinion, to have a definition of a "cool" personality in one section of the book, and another one in another section. Of course, not all traits characteristic of the cool guy would apply to all individuals, but the key ones should. Ted writes, "<span>Cool was defined by its reliance on image and irony, by its artifice and playful fluidity. It was marked, above all, by an outward focus on trends and fashions." </span><span>These, which I take to be very important in Teds view of the cool, ought to be found in Bix. They are not.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /></span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span> </span>
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><span>There is a huge difference between being a rebel, an outsider for the sake of being an outsider, and Bixs lifestyle. In my book, for Bix to be </span>a rebel, he would have had to have an agenda to abandon societys and his familys beliefs and principles. Bix as an outsider would have made a conscious decision to lead his life outside that of his family because he objected to his familys lifestyle. NO! I dont think there was such an agenda, such a conscious decision. As a I said repeatedly, Bix had a passion (and a genius) for music and the path (lifestyle) he chose had nothing to do with rebellion or deliberately choosing to be an outsider, but the natural flow of events for a person who decided to become a jazz/dance band musician.
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"> 
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;">Albert<span></span>
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Brendan Wolfe
Brendan Wolfe

December 21st, 2009, 2:02 pm #7

Albert, I'll admit to being frustrated by your refusal to look at Gioia's specific argument in his chapter about Bix. Said argument about cool is restricted to the characteristics of white jazzmen, characteristics that -- and here I just want to emphasize -- preceded our current definition of cool. Gioia argues that cool as we know it now did not exist then, and therefore we cannot impose on white jazzmen and Bix in particular the definition of cool that has since developed, one that relies, as you point out, "on image and irony," on "artifice and playful fluidity."

In the meantime, I asked you to help me understand how Bix wasn't an outsider, and instead you gave me an explanation of why Bix wasn't a rebel. I would argue that someone who moved away from home, joined a dance band orchestra, and then drank himself to death didn't do that without thinking about it; that would make him "passive," a personality trait you don't subscribe to where Bix is concerned. So perhaps he was a rebel, but I'm not going to plant my flag on that hill. It's the sort of thing we can debate and have opinions about, but not the sort of thing we can really know.

But I would argue that Bix's status as outsider is a bit more objective. Do you still think he wasn't an outsider? If so, why?
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Alberta
Alberta

December 21st, 2009, 3:05 pm #8

The Gioia book would not have made it to my radar without this discussion, but I've followed every comment and read every review suggested and now I guess I'll have to read the source document, mostly because something about his whole argument, as laid out so far, just strikes me as wrong. I've ordered it from my local library so I can figure out what. Thanks for all the commentary. When I finally get the book, I might weigh in, if anyone is still discussing this, that is! Anyway, thanks! BTW for those of you that got it, enjoy the snow!
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

December 21st, 2009, 3:16 pm #9


.... and shoveling all that amount is no fun, in particular the heavy stuff that town snowplows dump in front of your driveway when they clean the streets! When I lived in State Colleg, PA, the snow was <strong>removed</strong> in dump trucks, not just pushed around. So far I have done half. I am not looking forward to the next half.

But I look forward to your views about the subject of Bix as a "cool guy."

Albert
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

December 21st, 2009, 6:01 pm #10

Albert, I'll admit to being frustrated by your refusal to look at Gioia's specific argument in his chapter about Bix. Said argument about cool is restricted to the characteristics of white jazzmen, characteristics that -- and here I just want to emphasize -- preceded our current definition of cool. Gioia argues that cool as we know it now did not exist then, and therefore we cannot impose on white jazzmen and Bix in particular the definition of cool that has since developed, one that relies, as you point out, "on image and irony," on "artifice and playful fluidity."

In the meantime, I asked you to help me understand how Bix wasn't an outsider, and instead you gave me an explanation of why Bix wasn't a rebel. I would argue that someone who moved away from home, joined a dance band orchestra, and then drank himself to death didn't do that without thinking about it; that would make him "passive," a personality trait you don't subscribe to where Bix is concerned. So perhaps he was a rebel, but I'm not going to plant my flag on that hill. It's the sort of thing we can debate and have opinions about, but not the sort of thing we can really know.

But I would argue that Bix's status as outsider is a bit more objective. Do you still think he wasn't an outsider? If so, why?
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;">. for an explanation of why Bix was not an outsider and instead I explained why Bix was not a rebel.
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /> 
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;">You missed two things. First, the title of your post was Bix as a rebel. Second, in my explanation of why Bix was not a rebel, I also provided the reasons why I think Bix was not an outsider. I guess, I will have to repeat and expand. Perhaps, this time it will be understood.
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"> 
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><strong>Bix an outsider?</strong> Incidentally, I recommend the book The Outsider by Colin Wilson which I read in the 1950s. Briefly, I view an outsider as an individual who is at odds with society, in particular with the environment where he grew up. The young people who lived in communes in the 1960s and 1970s were outsiders. They chose to drop the lifestyle of their parents. In my view, these were outsiders by design, they objected to the society where they grew up, they chose an utterly different lifestyle than that of their parents. Bix lived in the environment of jazz and dance band musicians. Certainly, that environment was outside of the mainstream community of his youth and family. But he did not object to the lifestyle of his parents. In order to pursue the passion of his life, he had to move outside the community of his parents. Not because he disliked and objected to his parents lifestyle, but because the jazz musicians community was the place where he could develop and fulfill his life ambition. He did not go outside the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Midwest lifestyle because he objected or disapprove of that life style, but because the only way he could fulfill his ambition was by going outside. He did not do this mindlessly, as you suggest I said. It was a deliberate decision on Bixs part, but not one because he disliked or despised his parents environment, but because it was the only way to proceed if he was to become a professional musician.
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"> 
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"><strong>Bix as cool guy? </strong>Ted clearly states that the concept of cool developed in the 1950s world of jazz. It then spread to the world of "movies, literature, and other cultural spheres." What started as a designation of a style of jazz became generalized as a designation of a personality, an attitude, an approach to life. Now, Ted looks for roots of cool jazz in the 1920s. He thinks he finds them in Bix. Now, Bix becomes  the progenitor of cool jazz. But  Ted goes further. He decides to define a cool guy in the 1920s and 30s. The definition from the cool jazz days is not applicable. So he invents a cool guy in the 1920s and 1930s. Ted assigns to the cool guy several characteristics, which happen to coincide with Bix's lifestyle. So Ted  declares that Bix is the progenitor of both cool jazz and the cool guy. [Seems like playing with loaded dice to me.] But the characteristics of Bix as a persona are radically different from those of the cool guy as viewed in the 1950s and beyond. So why should these be used to define a cool guy in the 1920s but not in the 1950s? There's something circular here. Anyway, you listed the following:
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt 21pt;text-indent:-.25in;"><span>-<span>         "</span></span>the outsider among the outsiders, a self-imposed alienation." I covered this above. In the case of Bix, I explained that it was not an alienation self-imposed by his desire to distance himself from his parents lifestyle,<span>  </span>but one<span>  </span>imposed by the fact that he wanted to fulfill his musical aspirations.
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt 21pt;text-indent:-.25in;"><span>-<span>         "</span></span>he sees himself as misunderstood, an underdog." Misunderstood by whom? His fellow musicians, his parents, society at large? I dont think so. Certainly not by his fellow musicians or his mother. Many musicians had nothing but praise and admiration for Bixs musical genius. His mother? She certainly understood what Bixs role was in the Paul Whiteman orchestra. Society? Maybe, but I dont know if Bix cared for the "understanding" of society.
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt 21pt;text-indent:-.25in;"><span>-<span>         "</span></span>his art dictates his response to the world (e.g., he is spontaneous and flouts rules)."Bix showed contempt for rules? Prohibition? Millions did too. Were they all cool? Spontaneous? Most people are spontaneous, only a few put on an act on their everyday behavior.
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt 21pt;text-indent:-.25in;"><span>-<span>         "</span></span>he values experience the way a banker hoards capital" ???? Does not compute for me.
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"> 
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;">Bix cool (either in music or as a guy)? My response, a resounding "no!" And in my opinion, too much psychological claptrap for Bix whose life revolved around music and little else, and whose motivations were dictated mostly by his desire to create music..
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;"> 
<p style="margin:0in 0in 0pt;">Albert
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