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Brook Zern (1941 – 2019): A Remembrance

by K. Meira Goldberg

The New York flamenco community is small and tight-knit. I got to know Brook Zern soon after I came to New York, hanging out together with the artists performing at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway in Claudio Segovia and Héctor Orezzoli’s legendary 1986 show, Flamenco Puro

to r.: Luis Suárez, Fernanda’s nephew, the author, Fernando Jiménez Peña, “La Fernanda de Utrera,” Jacinto Kantor. Photographer unknown.

Decades later, just the day before the 2013 exhibit 100 Years of Flamenco in New York City, which I co-curated with Ninotchka Bennahum, opened at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Brook came into the gallery with a suitcase full of treasures for the cases: records, programs, flyers, including a flyer of a 1965 concert of the legends Pete Seeger and flamenco guitarist Carlos Montoya…

People’s Songs Inc presents “The Midnight Special at Town Hall,” featuring Pete Seeger and Carlos Montoya in “Strings at Midnight,” 1965. Courtesy of Brook Zern
Medal given to Sir Brook Zern by the King of Spain. Courtesy of Brook Zern

… and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Queen Isabella given to him in 2008 on the occasion of his being knighted by King Juan Carlos I of Spain for the dissemination of Spanish culture in the U.S., the highest honor, writes Brook’s friend, flamenco author and journalist Estela Zatania, that a non-Spaniard can receive.

Here’s what we wrote in medal’s exhibit text panel:

The series of television programs filmed in the 1960s and ’70s, Rito y Geografía del Cante, Rito y Geografía del Toque and Rito y Geografía del Baile (Rite and Geography of Flamenco song, guitar, and dance), precious records of major Flamenco artists, were forgotten and turning to dust.  Due to the persistent efforts of Brook Zern, they have been preserved for posterity.  In 2008, King Juan Carlos I of Spain knighted Brook Zern for his work in the dissemination of Spanish Culture in the U.S.  Zern received the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Queen Isabella (Cruz de Oficiál de la Órden de Isabela la Católica), the highest honor that Spain can bestow on a foreigner.  This is the first time that this rare recognition has been given for the examination, explanation and illumination of the art of Flamenco in all its facets, within its cultural and historical context. Zern also wrote, at the request of Spanish Flamenco authority José Luis Ortíz Nuevo, the U. S. contribution to the Spanish petition to UNESCO in May 2004, documenting Flamenco’s long presence and continuing impact in the New World and requesting that Flamenco be declared an Intangible Heritage of Mankind, a status granted in 2010.

Brook wrote a chapter for the 100 Years catalog, “And Throughout its Remarkable History, Flamenco Dance had a Partner…”and two years later, when I co-edited Flamenco on the Global Stage: Historical, Critical, and Theoretical Perspectives (McFarland, 2015) with Bennahum and Michelle Heffner Hayes, Brook contributed a chapter,  “The Real Stories.”Here are some excerpts of the draft biography he sent us for the book, which reflect his passion for flamenco, his modesty, and dry wit: 

Brook Zern, who calls himself a Freelance Flamencologist, has no academic affiliations, though sometimes he wistfully wishes he did. 

His lifelong research project began in 1959, when as a Columbia freshman he took over his father’s fifteen-year obsession with the flamenco guitar and it gradually spread to the art as a whole. He has since spent many years studying flamenco in situ, in the smoky bars and ramshackle roadside ventas in southern Spain, mostly in Seville and Jerez.  Over there, he listens. Over here, he talks.

 He has talked about flamenco at scads of U.S. schools, colleges and universities including Harvard and Columbia.  (A recent lecture at the University of New Mexico, was titled:  “Sez Who? The Top Ten Flamenco Arguments and the Announcement of the Winning Sides.”)

He has played a vital and often lonely role in the conservation, restoration and ultimate public revelation of hundreds of hours of crucial Spanish audio recordings and documentary film including the 100 television programs of the 1972 masterpiece “Rito y Geografía del Flamenco”, very costly to preserve and now viewable on YouTube. He feels honored to have known and learned about flamenco directly from most of the now-legendary singers of the past half-century, as well as many great dancers.  He has also known and studied flamenco with virtually all important guitarists except Sabicas and Paco de Lucía, who did not give lessons (though Sabicas gave hints, which could be more than enough).  He suspects he may know more extraordinary music from the guitar tradition than anyone else alive – though he may never grasp the more recent material that relies on jazz and other outside traditions for its new sound.   He wrote the American contribution to the international petition that recently led UNESCO to declare flamenco an Intangible Patrimony of Humanity. 

In 1971, he taught what was likely the world’s first university course on “Flamenco: The Art and the Life” at the New School for Social Research. His 1973 article in a Spanish publication was the first to analyze the painful cultural parallels between the blues and flamenco, including the traumatic experiences of American blacks and the Spanish Gypsies whose respective contributions were central to each art. After the recent death of Paco de Lucía, he initiated an intensive effort to have Spain honor its greatest musician with a postage stamp – an extraordinary two-person campaign that led to the issuance of that stamp within just six weeks of the great artist’s passing.  (Who says you have to wait forever to get anything done at the Post Office?) 

He probably forgets a lot of other stuff that he probably did. 

But we do not forget, old friend. We miss you.

Brook Zern (left) with Sabicas, c. 1980. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Brook Zern

The Father of Flamenco in the US: José Molina (1936 – 2018)

We are dedicating our upcoming conference, Flamenco in the United States: From the Modernist Vanguard through the 21st Century (March 27), to two pillars of the New York flamenco community: José Molina and Brook Zern. Today, we would like to share Molina’s story.

Written by K. Meira Goldberg

 

José Molina Quijada said that the Billy Elliot story mirrors how he came to dance.[1] Born in Madrid to Murcian parents, José’s father fought for the Republicans, and was jailed when José was three years old. As for many Spaniards in the wake of the Civil War, times were hard. José’s mother moved them to the family home in Murcia and fought to get Jose’s father released from prison. When José was six his father found work in a fish market, and moved the family back to Madrid. At nine, he was enrolled in a boxing school but, much to his father’s chagrin the boxers shared space with Spanish dance classes, and here José found his vocation.

He saw Pilar López and José Greco perform in 1945, and knew this was his future. His father was adamantly opposed. But José’s mother convinced him to accept José’s ambition, as long as he paid for his own classes by working mornings in the fish market. For six years José labored, earning just enough to pay for classes with Pilar Monterde in neo-Classical Spanish dance, Escuela Bolera, a bit of ballet and a bit of Flamenco. He got his first break with Soledad Miralles, the well-to-do wife of an American doctor, touring Spain and dancing at the famous Madrid theater the Lope de Vega for two months as a soloist. From age sixteen to nineteen, he toured nightclubs throughout Europe and the Middle East as a soloist, dancing Classical Spanish and even Flamenco pieces like Farruca to piano and orchestra. Just after celebrating his nineteenth birthday in Cairo, in 1956, he was invited to New York to audition for Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan’s Tonight Show. He said goodbye to his mother, who had accompanied him for three long years of touring, and never danced in Europe again.

Steve Allen came with James Mason to audition José at the studio that had been and would continue to be a home to Spanish dancers for generations, then called Michael’s (later changed to Fazil’s). From The Tonight Show, José was asked to be José Greco’s first dancer, and he toured the world with Greco for five years before forming his own company, José Molina Bailes Españoles, in 1961. Molina was a frequent guest on the Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin television shows, and toured throughout the U.S. through the late 1990s. He was a devoted teacher with a devoted following, and he said, “I think I will teach until the day I die. And if one day I die, I want to die in the studio playing castañets ria ria pi ta, or doing footwork, and then, ‘Goodbye!’ I would be so happy, just there.” True to his wish, he taught for as long as he was physically able. Molina brought Spanish dance to the entire U.S., and his gift to New York was his invitation to many wonderful Spanish dancers such as Luis Montero, Antonia Martinez and Nelida Tirado, among many more. 

The evening of March 27, following our symposium, we will screen two documentaries related to Molina, FlameNYCo, a feature on Flamenco Festival NY’s 10th anniversary which includes a 2010 performance by Molina, and the short Ode to Fazil’s, about the legendary theater district dance studio where Molina gave lessons. (Reserve your seat for the screening and learn more about the films here.)

[1] Ninotchka Bennahum and K. Meira Goldberg, “A Modern Masculinity,” 100 Years of Flamenco in New York City, (New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, 2014), 104.

Upcoming Talks Moderated by the GC’s Daniel Valtueña

As a part of Flamenco Festival NYC, Graduate Center PhD student Daniel Valtueña will be moderating a series of talks called “RADICAL FLAMENCO” at NYU’s King Juan Carlos I Center.

Rocio Molina

March 12 at 6:30, he will host “Radical Flamenco: A Conversation with Israel Galván,” ahead of Galván’s performance at NYU’s Skirball Center on March 13. NYU has canceled all events through March 29 owing to COVID-19 concerns. Please check back for updates on the remaining talk.

Next, March 26 at 6:30, he will host a conversation with Rocio Molina, who will perform at City Center the following day. 

Lastly, on April 3 at 7:30, he will talk with flamenco collective Los Voluble, about their current project “Flamenco is Not a Crime.” Los Voluble will perform at Joe’s Pub on April 4. 

Each of these talks is free and open to the public, and will be presented en español. Receptions to follow. For more information about the performers, click the links above.

Valtueña produced last year’s Niño de Elche residency at the GC’s James Gallery, in conjunction with the Foundation for Iberian Music, and he will also be chairing a panel on March 27 at our upcoming conference, Flamenco in the USA: From the Modernist Vanguard to the 21st Century.  Join us in celebrating a month of progressive flamenco!

Literes Debuts in Finland

The Finnish Baroque Orchestra (FiBO), featuring soprano Irene Mas, recently completed a successful program of baroque music that included two Literes cantatas—the first time any Literes work has ever been performed in Finland! Literes has a special connection to the Foundation for Iberian Music as one of director Antoni Pizà’s research specialties. The cantadas al Santíssimo featured on the program,  La mariposa and Atalaya divina, were re-discovered and edited by Pizà and Anna Cazzurra. Pizà is one of only a few musicologists who has published on Literes, and we are delighted that the work to preserve Literes’s legacy and introduce him to the world at large is paying off.

The program was performed previously at the Early Music Festival of Colònia de Sant Pere, but this time the orchestra played under the direction of renowned early music specialist Barry Sargent, producing a new and fresh take on the material. Congrats to all the performers. The final program is below.

Antoni Lliteres (1673-1747)
La mariposa, Cantada al Santíssimo

  1. Aria
  2. Coplas
  3. Aria

Francesco Bartolomeo Conti (1681-1732)
Con piu lucidi candori

  1. Aria
  2. Aria, adagio.
  3. Aria, allegro assai

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)
Sonata for Four

  1. (No tempo marking)
  2.  Allegro
  3. Grave
  4. Vivace

Lliteres
Atalaya divina, Cantada al Santíssimo

  1. Recitative, aria
  2. Recitative, aria

Past Lecture Guest Sir Roger Scruton Has Died

We are sorry to hear that English philosopher Sir Roger Scruton recently died at the age of 75. Scruton was the penultimate speaker of our Music in 21st-Century Society lecture series, for which he gave a talk called “Walking Among Noise,” with a response from Greil Marcus. His talk extended from his 1997 book The Aesthetics of Music, in which he explored the spatial perception of musical tones. As The Guardian writes in their obituary, “‘If someone said that, for him, there is no up and down in music, no movement, no soaring, rising, falling, no running or walking from place to place’, would we count what he is hearing as music?”

For a full look at  Scruton’s many accomplishments and controversies, please read the full obituary. If you’d like to hear the talk he gave at the Graduate Center (which yielded a lively audience discussion), you can watch the full video online.

Samper Presentation for Jazz Palma 2020

On February 11, Francesc Vicens, who co-edited Música de Jazz with Antoni Pizà, will do a presentation on Samper’s 1935 jazz lectures for Jazz Palma 2020, with live musical accompaniment.

Vicens will be joined by guitarist Pere Lluís Dàvila and singer Cecília Jiménez, who will perform jazz songs of the ’20s and ’30s.

Admission: free
7:00 pm
Biblioteca Municipal de Sant Jordi
Palma de Mallorca

New Review of Samper’s Jazz Lectures

 The digital literary criticism magazine La Lectora has just published a thorough review of Antoni Pizà and Francesc Vicens’s recent edition of Samper’s 1935 lectures on jazz

The review includes a brief overview of Samper’s history and how his legacy has been little-known, even in Spain, until musicologists such as Pizà and Vicens began bringing it to light. The value of Samper’s lectures themselves is twofold, providing insight into both the composer’s musical interests and the reception of jazz in Europe. 

Thanks also to La Lectora for their mention of our accompanying YouTube playlist of works played or mentioned by Samper in his lectures.

Flamenco in the U.S. Conference: Registration and Film Screenings

Registration is now open for our upcoming conference Flamenco in the US: From the Modernist Vanguard through the 21st Century, and we have added a pair of documentary films to cap off the proceedings. Please note that they are in separate locations at the Graduate Center and have separate registration. Admission to both is free.

Conference registration is available here.

And you can reserve a seat for the film screenings here.

Following the last presentation of the conference, we will screen one feature-length documentary and one documentary short. First we have FlameNYCo, directed by Javier Benítez (45 minutes). This documentary, filmed in 2010 to celebrate the Flamenco Festival’s 10th anniversary, features the illustrious artists performing in the Festival that year: Estrella Morente, Farruquito, Eva Yerbabuena, alongside New York flamenco legends such as the late maestro José Molina. There will be a short audience Q & A with the Flamenco Festival NY director, Miguel Marín.

Second is Ode to Fazil’s directed by Marcel Rosa Salas (17 minutes). On 8th Avenue between 46th and 47th Streets in Manhattan, in the heart of Broadway, a worn-down tenement building was once home to Fazil’s Studio, a legendary dance rehearsal space. Many of the world’s great companies, along with up-and-comers, worked and sweated through their choreography in its halls. The film’s director, Marcel Rosa-Salas, the daughter of a flamenco dancer, once considered it a second home. Ode to Fazil’s is a touching tribute to an iconic monument of New York City dance. Following the film, there will be a short audience Q & A the film’s director and artists featured in the film, Rosa, Najma Harissiadis, Raymond “Spex” Abbiw, Fazil’s sister Serpil, Victorio Korjhan, and Arturo Martínez “Espíritu Gitano.”

The films will follow the symposium at 5:00, on the C level.

Stick around after the screenings to see Songs of Light: Rocío Márquez Featuring Miguel Ángel Cortés, who will be performing in the Elebash Auditorium at 7:00! (This concert is a part of Flamenco Festival NY; admission is $30, but a limited number of free tickets are available to the GC community. For details, see the event page linked above.)