Sep. 29, 2014

We drove across high prairie...

by Athena Kildegaard

We drove across high prairie,
the Mississippi behind us,
nothing ahead for miles
but sky,

a loamy sky, thick enough
to put a trowel into,
but off to the south
clouds pulled

away from one another
as if to stand back
take a long look,
and in that

space what light was left
of the sun
already gone below
the horizon

flowed up and held there
and we did too hold
our breaths at the sudden

"We drove across high prairie..." by Athena Kildegaard from Cloves & Honey. © Nodin Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the physicist Enrico Fermi, born in Rome (1901), the man who used Einstein's theories to build the first functioning nuclear reactor. He was studying radioactivity in the 1930s, and if he hadn't wrapped his uranium in tin foil, he might have discovered nuclear fission then, and his work might have fallen into the hands of the Nazis. But he won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1938, and he used the prize as an opportunity to defect with his wife to the United States. He got involved in the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb, and he moved to the University of Chicago, where he built the first reactor there on a squash court under the stands of the university football field in late 1942.

Fermi and his team conducted the first nuclear reaction on the morning of December 2, 1942. His experiment lasted 28 minutes, and it was a complete success. News of the successful experiment was conveyed to Washington, D.C., in a coded message that said, "The Italian navigator has landed in the new world." Three years later, in the desert outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico, Fermi watched as the first atomic bomb was exploded.

It was on this day in 1947 that trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie played at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker joined him in a sold-out show.

Gillespie began playing as a kid in South Carolina. His father was a bricklayer and led a local band, and he kept the band members' instruments in their home, so Gillespie grew up around music. He taught himself trombone and trumpet, and when he was 18 he moved with his family to Philadelphia and joined a big band. In 1939, Dizzy joined Cab Calloway's orchestra, a famous big band of the swing era. Calloway wasn't a big fan of Gillespie's music — he told the young trumpeter, "Quit playing that Chinese music in my band." One night Calloway accused Gillespie of hitting him with a spitball. Dizzy got so mad that he stabbed Calloway in the butt, and was promptly fired.

In the next few years, Gillespie began playing at a run-down club in Harlem called Minton's Playhouse, along with musicians like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and Kenny Clarke. Gillespie was a talented, innovative musician, and he was charismatic and stylish. He had a big stage presence, and he always wore horn-rimmed glasses, a beret, a goatee, and dark sunglasses. The media couldn't get enough of him, and whether it was good or bad publicity, he loved it. The music that Gillespie was playing at Minton's became known as bebop.

Bebop music was a big departure from swing. Swing was predictable in both its melodies and its rhythm. Bebop was faster, used dissonant chords, had more complicated rhythms, and incorporated lots of improvisation and solos on featured instruments. Many music critics didn't understand bebop, and didn't like it either. They thought Dizzy Gillespie was a bad influence on younger musicians. One critic wrote: "His solo opens quietly enough with an original idea, but disintegrates into incredibly ugly vulgar triple-tonguing and hunting horn effects. We see from the publicity pictures that Dizzy now doubles in snake charming. Knowing this, and with the above solo in mind, I long for his entry into the circus world."

Bebop was here to stay, and in 1947 Gillespie was invited to give a concert at Carnegie Hall, his first as a headliner. The concert program quoted Duke Ellington: "This is 1947 and you have all these wonderful musical minds like Dizzy Gillespie ... young minds, progressive minds, active minds that have to be respected ... Why should music stand still? Nothing else stands still. Who can say that the whole United States and the musical mind should stand still? ... Music now is in skilled hands. It's going to move along."

The concert was at 8:30 on a Monday night. For the first set, Gillespie and Charlie Parker played together as part of the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, along with a drummer, a bassist, and a piano player. The second set was a performance by Ella Fitzgerald, backed by the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band. The orchestra performed on its own for the third set, and included a debut by the Cuban drummer Chano Pozo on the song "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop."

Gillespie went on to perform at Carnegie Hall more than 50 times. He said: "Artist are always in the vanguard of social change, but we didn't go out and make speeches or say, ‘Let's play eight bars of protest.' We just played our music and let it go at that. The music proclaimed our identity; it made every statement we truly wanted to make."

On this day in 1920, the Joseph Horne Company department store in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, began selling ready-to-use radio receivers for $10 apiece, capitalizing on the popularity of a local show hosted by Westinghouse engineer Frank Conrad. Conrad had set up shop in his garage, using a homemade transmitter to play gramophone records for his listeners. In little more than a month, Conrad and Westinghouse had founded the first commercially licensed radio station in the U.S. Station KDKA made its first official broadcast from a shack on the roof of the Westinghouse building in downtown Pittsburgh, broadcasting the presidential election returns (Harding won) and setting off what historian Orrin Dunlap Jr. called "a craze that swept the country to become a vast new industry." By 1922, more than half a million ready-made receivers had been sold, and there were 556 stations on the air.

It's what's believed to be the birthday of Miguel de Cervantes (books by this author), born near Madrid, Spain (1547). He's the author of Don Quixote, written four centuries ago and now considered to be the first modern novel. It's about a middle-aged landowner named Alonso Quijano who stays awake at night reading books about chivalry. He becomes obsessed with tales, neglects to eat and sleep, and goes mad believing the stories to be true. He laments the demise of chivalry in the modern world and is determined to resurrect chivalry by going on a heroic quest. He sets off on his skinny horse to begin performing heroic and gentlemanly feats. His plans often go awry. He is noble but foolish. He's quixotic, an adjective — in many languages — to which his character gave rise.

On this day in 1881, the first of a series of letters by the naturalist John Muir (books by this author) appeared in the San Francisco Evening Bulletin. He had accepted an offer to board the steamer Corwin, which was being sent to search for a lost whaler and to explore Wrangell Island, where he hoped to learn more about the way glaciers formed and moved. He had already made two trips to the Arctic, and had come home and gotten married, but felt he couldn't refuse this chance to see Alaska again. He found a little white flower no one had described before, and had his name attached to a floral genus. He called the Alaskan landscape "a terrestrial manifestation of God." He said: "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

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