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    Marty Callner Might Be the Most Influential Comedy Director

    Marty Callner made the first modern special, setting the template still in use. (He was also key to hair-metal videos. But that’s another story.)Since comedy is often overlooked at the Oscars, why doesn’t it have its own awards show?It’s been tried, but the self-seriousness of such events can be an odd fit. So when Netflix started an awards show celebrating the greats in stand-up — who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame being built at the National Comedy Center — it was inevitable that a participating comic would make fun of the whole thing.At the recent Los Angeles taping of that awards show, “The Hall: Honoring the Greats of Stand-Up,” which premieres on Thursday, Richard Pryor, Joan Rivers, George Carlin and Robin Williams were inducted with speeches by Dave Chappelle, Chelsea Handler, Jon Stewart and John Mulaney. When Mulaney introduced Williams by reading a letter from the late comic’s daughter, he appeared momentarily emotional before pausing to say: “I don’t want to cry at a fake awards show.”That didn’t sit right with Marty Callner, the show’s co-creator (with Randall Gladstein) and director, who cut that quip in the edit. “It’s real,” he told me in the backyard of his Malibu home. “The Hall” has been a longtime dream of his, an effort to reintroduce classic comedy to younger generations, and an honor that he says comics will appreciate and care about. “These guys are still human beings and they still have egos and they still want a legacy.”John Mulaney inducting Robin Williams into the Hall of Fame on the new special.Terence Patrick/NetflixCallner, 75, has his own complicated relationship with a public legacy since his remarkable career has largely existed in the background. In fact, he might be the most successful director you have never heard of.Over the past five decades, Callner has worked with some of the most famous brand names in popular culture — Madonna, Jerry Seinfeld, the Dallas Cowboys — and was a formative figure at the dawn of two modern art forms: the stand-up special and the music video, neither of which are known for giving much credit to the director. If that weren’t enough innovation, he also created “Hard Knocks,” a hit reality show that for 20 years, turned N.F.L. training camp into a soap opera.“The Hall,” whose inductees were chosen by a panel of comedy industry types like club owners and agents chosen by Callner, is only the latest institution he’s built, but it’s one he speaks about with personal passion, especially since he knew each of the first four comics being inducted. “Stand-up is such a part of my life that I wanted to give back,” he said.Callner was raised by a single parent (his father left when he was 2) in Cincinnati, a midcentury television hub. He credits a 1969 trip on synthetic psilocybin for awakening his previously dormant creativity, started working an entry-level job in live local news and immediately fell in love. He hung around the Cincinnati station at all hours, sponging up shot composition and camera angles. When a director suddenly left one afternoon for a family emergency, Callner got his chance, moving on to direct commercials and Boston Celtics games including their championship season in 1974. His success led to two offers: to work for NBC Sports, a national behemoth, or for a relatively unknown new cable channel called HBO, where he would be able to shape its look and style (and direct live coverage of Wimbledon). Callner bet on the option where he could have more sway. It wouldn’t take long for this to pay off in his big break.Two months after “Saturday Night Live” premiered in 1975, he directed a show that started a tradition that rivals it: “An Evening With Robert Klein” was the first HBO stand-up special. Shelley Berman and Bob Newhart had made specials for television the previous decade, but it was Klein’s hour that pointed the way to the future, even opening with a backstage scene of the comic preparing. This cold open would become such a stand-up special cliché that Callner said he wouldn’t use it again.HBO had a couple of advantages over network television: It presented longer sets, and, critically, comics could curse. The line that Klein cared most about, Callner said, came after he swore: “What a catharsis,” he quipped.Callner zoomed in on him during this moment to emphasize the point.The day after the show premiered, a positive review in The Times described the process of using five cameras to capture an uncensored long-form portrait of the comic as “innovative.”“That changed my life,” Callner said, adding that the article led HBO to sign him up for a series of specials that made the cable channel the central home for this nascent form. He directed the first specials of Robin Williams, Steve Martin and Carlin, who became a good friend and the best man at his wedding. Did Carlin give a speech? “I’m sure he did but I don’t even remember being there,” Callner said, smiling. “It was the 1980s.”The look of these early specials did not draw attention to itself. “I learned the comedy directs me,” he said. “If a comedian is doing something physical, it better be a head-to-toe shot. If he’s making a poignant point, it better be on a close shot. It was reportage. My job was to capture their genius and not take shots that were superfluous. I see all kinds of directors today making this mistake. They are cutting around to show off.”“My job was to capture their genius and not take shots that were superfluous,” Callner said, with an Emmy for “Hard Knocks” on his desk.Peter Fisher for The New York TimesBy the end of the decade, Callner had become bored with specials and excited by a flashier art form in its infancy at another young cable channel, MTV.His first video, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take it,” was a slapstick production that leaned on his comic background. In it, a boy (played by his son) sends his angry dad out the window thanks to the power of his declaration, “I want to rock!” (which was Callner’s voice dubbed in). This proved to be a major hit and led to directing jobs on hundreds more videos, including 18 with Aerosmith and four with Cher. It was Callner’s idea to put Cher on a cannon on a Navy ship in the video “If I Could Turn Back Time.” Asked why, he said, “It was phallic,” which is hard to argue with.In these early days of MTV, the aesthetic for videos was up for grabs, said Rob Tannenbaum, who co-wrote “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution” and is an occasional contributor to The Times. He explained, “Devo wanted them to be avant-garde films; Duran Duran wanted them to be Patrick Nagel-style reveries; Marty Callner thought videos should be funny, which proved to be a more durable concept.” He added, “He understood, early on, that videos could be about more than amusement — they could be about branding and even mythology.”To be sure, they were also about scantily clad women (MTV once gave him a note that his video for the Scorpions’ “Big City Nights,” had too many women in bikinis) and hair, lots of it. As much as anyone, Callner created the visuals for the era when rock was dominated by flowing, feathered locks. The secret auteur of the genre known as hair metal was his hairdresser wife of 40 years, Aleeza Callner, who blow-dried the heads of the members of Whitesnake, Poison, Kiss, the Scorpions — not to mention Sam Kinison and Jerry Seinfeld.After a career directing television that tapped into the raw American id, Callner, who said he hated the objectification of women “even though I can’t say I wasn’t culpable,” is now looking at an unlikely new idea. He’s planning a festival called “America’s Wedding” in which 2,000 couples would get married at the same time in Las Vegas.For now, he is focused on “The Hall,” which Netflix aims to make an annual tradition. Callner, who once directed a tribute to Lenny Bruce, said that the influential stand-up received the fifth most votes, and hopes he gets inducted in a future show.Asked if it ever bothers him that his work is so much better known than he is, he said what mattered to him was the final product. “I didn’t become a household name,” he said, in front of a beautiful view of the water, “but I did become the highest paid television director in Hollywood, and the reason is: I made people a lot of money.” More

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    LaChanze, a Tony Nominee, Is Casting Herself in New Roles

    The veteran actress, nominated for her work in “Trouble in Mind,” is championing Black artists, producing on Broadway and relishing being cast as the love interest.A Tony Award-winning actress walked into a bar, and before long, she was talking about racism.“I have noticed in my career,” the actress, LaChanze, said, “that roles that I’ve gotten are roles of women who have experienced trauma. Major, major trauma. People feel comfortable making me, as a dark-skinned Black woman, a victim of some kind of violence, a victim of trauma. A victim.”The subject of racism — and the various ways it can manifest in the theater industry — came up repeatedly during a lively conversation on a recent rainy Friday afternoon in an Upper West Side wine bar.But don’t get it twisted. LaChanze is thankful — for her career and for the opportunities she’s had over the years.She just received her fourth Tony nomination — her first for best leading actress in a play — for her portrayal of Wiletta Mayer in the Broadway debut of Alice Childress’s 1955 play “Trouble in Mind.”LaChanze, who uses a mononym but was born Rhonda LaChanze Sapp, received glowing reviews. The Times’s theater critic, Jesse Green, wrote that she got the character’s “arc just right in a wonderfully rangy compelling performance.” LaChanze “dazzles,” embodying Wiletta with “breathless ease,” Lovia Gyarkye wrote in her review for The Hollywood Reporter.Every aspect of “Trouble in Mind” seems to comment on racism in some way. There were plans to take it to Broadway in the mid-1950s after a successful run in Greenwich Village, yet the show didn’t make it there until 2021. As a Black writer intending to highlight the unfairness in the theater industry, Childress, who died in 1994, ran headlong into it.“She is finally getting her day in the sun,” LaChanze said of Childress after the show was nominated for four Tony Awards, including best revival of a play.Childress’s comedy-drama is centered on a group of mostly Black actors, with an all-white creative team, rehearsing a Broadway-bound play about the events leading up to a lynching. Wiletta, the main character, is a proud veteran musical-theater actor, excited to be in her first play. She just has a few notes about the script. But the white director is not receptive to Wiletta’s suggestions and feedback. And as she summons the courage to be more forceful, pointing out that some of the dialogue and actions in the script are not authentic to what Black people would actually do and say, the resulting conflict has dire consequences.LaChanze knows the feeling.“I remember having an argument with a director once, saying, ‘A Black woman would never say this about herself.’ And he said, ‘I think she would.’ And he was a white man.” There was an “organic” connection for her with the character of Wiletta: “I have literally lived it in my 40 years of being in this business.”LaChanze as Wiletta Mayer with Michael Zegen as the director Al Manners and Danielle Campbell as the ingénue Judy Sears in “Trouble in Mind,” which ran last fall at the American Airlines Theater.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesThat changed with “Trouble in Mind,” whose director, Charles Randolph-Wright, was “the first Black director that I have had as a leading actress on Broadway,” LaChanze said.Describing LaChanze as a “goddess,” Randolph-Wright praised not only her acting (“I knew what she would do with this, but it was even beyond my imagination”) but also her spirit (“She led that company with grace, with humor — it was brilliant”).And the two of them had a “symbiotic” relationship while working on the show, he said, adding: “It would be late at night and I would have an idea about something, and I would go to dial her number — and my phone would be ringing. She would call me at the exact same moment.”Over a glass of wine, LaChanze was straightforward. Matter-of-fact. She was also luminous, quick to laugh and her eyes shone when she talked about her daughters. Her eldest, Celia Rose Gooding, is now starring in the TV series “Star Trek: Strange New Worlds,” after starring in the Broadway musical “Jagged Little Pill.” Her youngest, Zaya Gooding, is a linguistics major in college. Coincidentally, Celia’s “Star Trek” character, Nyota Uhura, specializes in linguistics, giving the younger daughter a chance to show off a bit for her older sibling. (“She calls her sister and she advises her on certain things,” LaChanze beamed. “How cool is that?”)Performing started early for LaChanze. As a child, one of her brothers played trombone; the other played drums. “We would make our own songs, and we sort of fashioned ourselves after being like the Jackson 5,” she said. Hers was a military family, so they moved a lot, but her mother always made sure LaChanze was in some sort of dance class or performing arts program. “I thrived there. It’s where I felt the most comfortable to be an outgoing, expressive child with this extra energy.”After attending Morgan State University in Baltimore for two years and then studying theater and dance at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, LaChanze landed in New York “so broke” in the mid-1980s.“I had decided I wasn’t going to go back to school. I was going to stay in New York and do this Broadway show ‘Uptown … It’s Hot!’” she said. Her character was, in her words, “third girl from the left.” Alas, her Broadway debut was brief: “It closed in four days.” (Technically the show closed after 24 performances, but it’s safe to say it was absolutely not a smash hit.)LaChanze ended up sleeping on an ex-boyfriend’s aunt’s couch.“He wasn’t even my boyfriend anymore. But his aunt and I were so tight,” LaChanze recalled. “She gave me a ring to pawn. And it was, like, $600 I got for the ring. And she said, ‘When you get your job, you’re going to go back and get my ring for me.’” In just under a month, LaChanze said, “I was able to get her ring back for her.”A few years later, LaChanze landed the role of the peasant girl Ti Moune in the 1990 Broadway musical “Once on This Island.” Although the Caribbean-set fairy tale with a predominantly Black cast was based on a novel by the Trinidad-born Black writer Rosa Guy, Black people were not involved in writing the lyrics and music, nor in directing or choreographing the show.It was a hit, and in 1991, “Once on This Island” was nominated for eight Tony Awards, including best musical. LaChanze was nominated for best featured actress in a musical and won a Drama Desk Award. She went on to play Marta in the Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical “Company.” And three years later, she stepped into a production of “Ragtime,” a stage adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel exploring the lives of three families at the turn of the 20th century. It was another production with a lot of Black cast members but a white creative team, including the same music and lyrics writers as “Once on This Island,” and Terrence McNally, who wrote the show’s book.At the time, LaChanze was thrilled with the role. But now she views some aspects of the show with a more critical eye. “Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful,” she said. Still: “It was for me the first time that I realized that — aha — here we have white people deciding, culturally, what Black people are doing.”Tony Awards: The Best New Musical NomineesCard 1 of 7The 2022 nominees. More

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    Nobody Makes Films Like Alex Garland. But He Might Stop Making Them.

    The man behind “Men” says of directing, “I don’t particularly enjoy it. It’s something I have to force myself to do.”Alex Garland knows that calling his new film “Men” is a provocative act. “It’s quite interesting that such a short, simple word can be so freighted with massive and entirely subjective meanings,” he said.As a writer and filmmaker, Garland is drawn to subjects that demand discussion: In the twisty robot parable “Ex Machina” (2015) and the Natalie Portman sci-fi drama “Annihilation” (2018), he favored a bold, stark setup that sat at the intersection of a cultural flash point. The tricky “Men” operates in a similar vein, casting Jessie Buckley as Harper, a woman coming to terms with her husband’s death and the blame he levied at her in his final moments.Harper rents a British country house to work through her trauma, but the men of the local village (all of whom are played by the actor Rory Kinnear) insinuate, belittle and wheedle her, too. One of them even stalks her, appearing naked in her front yard, but whom can Harper register a complaint with when all of the men around her — or all men, period — are, deep down, the same guy?I spoke to Garland on a video call this month while he was in the middle of directing “Civil War,” an A24 action epic starring Kirsten Dunst. Garland, who is 51 and British, sounded a bit weary. Before making “Ex Machina,” he only wrote screenplays for other filmmakers to direct — including “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine” and “Dredd.” The more we spoke, the more he questioned whether he wanted to continue directing at all.“I’m tired of feeling like a fraud,” he told me. “I’ve got so many other reasons to feel like a fraud, I don’t need to add to it in a structural way with my job.”Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.In “Men,” Jessie Buckley plays a widow coming to terms with her husband’s death. Kevin Baker/A24Do you read reviews of your films?Sometimes, because there’ll be a set of websites that I go to, and then I will see — with a horrible, sinking feeling — that they’ve reviewed the thing I worked on, and I’d have to be a monk to not read it. I broadly try to keep away from them. The first thing I did in any kind of public forum was write a book, “The Beach.” I was 26 or 27 when it came out and read everything, and I realized that I could get incredibly wounded, that it was really personal. It was a slow stepping back, because it’s now 25 years that I’ve been doing this. I think I’m probably stepping back from all sorts of different things.What else are you stepping back from?I think it is partly a function of getting older: I know less and less people, I have a smaller and smaller circle, and I go out less and less. Everything’s just getting progressively quieter and smaller, I’d say.Your films kind of reflect that attitude. They have very small casts and very circumscribed locations. There isn’t much clutter.That would definitely be fair to say. I find my myself interested in less and less things, but the things I’m interested in, I might go deeper and deeper into. And also, I’m not really a film director, I’m a writer who directs out of convenience.You didn’t expect to have this career as a director?It wasn’t that I had any great urge to direct, it was more born out of anxiety based on writing: I’d find it very agitating if something [in the film] felt totally wrong to me, or something that I felt was important was absent. But I have been thinking that after the film I’m directing at the moment, I should stop and go back to just writing. That might be part of the reversing away from the world — it’s time to get away from it, I think. I’m not temperamentally suited to being a film director.Why is that?It would be more honest, probably, to say I don’t particularly enjoy it. It’s something I have to force myself to do. It’s incredibly sociable, because you are with a large group of people the whole time — and, in my case, having to do a lot of role play. At the end of the day, you feel a bit fraudulent and exhausted.Garland is having second thoughts about directing: “I’m tired of feeling like a fraud.”Olivia Crumm for The New York TimesBecause you have to become sort of a showman?Yeah, exactly. I will find myself standing in front of a group of extras saying, “All right, so what’s happening now is dah, dah, dah,” raising my voice and being encouraging and intense. It just feels incredibly performative. Whenever I watch a chat show, and I see the host engaging in witty banter with a guest, I look at them and think, “What if they’re feeling really depressed right now?” Here’s the requirement for a quip, here’s the requirement to be interested in something you’re not interested in, and inside you’re feeling incredibly bleak and existential. It always makes me shudder — I almost can’t watch those programs because I feel that so strongly. And my version of being a talk-show host is standing on a film set.Still, I would think that you’d want to be on set to supervise the physical realization of your worlds and themes.Oh yeah, but that’s the limit of it. There are many directors where the set is where they need and want to be more than any other place, and as soon as the film is finished, they’re scheming to be in that space again with as short a delay as possible. And that’s just not me.I’ve seen some directors reach old age, and it’s as though they have to keep directing in order to live. Sometimes, there’s another film placed in front of them even before they’ve finished the last one.No question. Immediately, as you said that, I had a Rolodex of names appear in my head, and I was thinking, “That’s exactly who he’s talking about.” But there’s also another kind of director who suddenly stops, people like Peter Weir and Alan Parker. They must have been walking away from something, and maybe they just tired of it.Is this the shortest period of time between you being on two movie sets? You shot “Men” in the middle of last year and started “Civil War” not long after.Yeah, the last day of postproduction on “Men” was 48 hours before the first day of principal photography on “Civil War.” Literally, it was a Saturday and a Monday.I remember speaking to Kirsten Dunst after she was cast in “Civil War,” and she said she was excited that she finally got to play “the boy part” in a movie.I hope she feels happy with the process, but you never know. I don’t think it’s just me that finds it difficult. Film sets are strange places. They’re Calvinist, punishing spaces of abstinence. People work really, really hard — like drop-down exhausted hard — and you see it on everyone’s faces at the end of the day. There can be elements of addiction in that, but it’s like, I’ve got an alarm bell in my head ringing the whole time, thinking, “You need to stop doing this.”Was “Men” that arduous to make?“Men” was really difficult. The subject matter gets into you, and you have to live with it, but it was also difficult on a technical level. We had a very short shoot, and we were trying to get a lot done very quickly. I often worried about Rory particularly, because the last few weeks of the shoot, he’s naked in the middle of the night, and it’s freezing cold. An enormous amount of filmmaking is actually logistics, and it’s like a managerial job. How do you execute this number of things within this many hours? Literally, how do you do it?Rory Kinnear plays all the men in “Men.”Kevin Baker/A24It’s the sort of movie that will leave people arguing about its intent, and about what it’s trying to say. You once told me that with “Ex Machina,” you wanted at least 50 percent of the film to be subject to the viewer’s interpretation.Over the years, I have been consciously putting more and more into the hands of the viewer. There’s probably another element to it, too, if I’m honest, which is that it’s making the viewer complicit. This is another reason to pull back, because there’s a part of me which is really subversive and aggressive and is kind of [messing] with people. At times, I felt with “Men” that I’ve gone so far that it’s borderline delinquent.What kind of reaction have you gotten to the film?I’ve got good friends who I really respect who I’ve shown “Men” to, and their convinced interpretation — “I know what this film is saying, it’s saying this” — is 180 degrees different from what I thought it was.When that happens, does that feel like a successful experiment?No.No?No, it just feels inevitable. When we’re watching a film, we have these responses that on a rational level, we know are subjective, but we treat them as if they’re objective, and that’s just the way it is. I have such distrust in my own responses and other people’s responses as being reliable — they could vary on a day-by-day level. So when I offer something up, I have no expectation that everybody’s going to agree on it. I have a full expectation that people will disagree, and I see it primarily as a reflection on them.What are some of the things your friends said about it?“Who’s the protagonist?” “Is this about what a woman thinks, or is it about what a man thinks?” It’s people’s certainty that I find strangest: “This means this, this means that.” I find myself getting less and less certain about everything.Even your own work?Oh, I have no certainty about that. That’s just a bunch of compulsions. More

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    Michael Che Is Still Trying to Crack the Code

    As he readies a new season of his HBO Max series, “That Damn Michael Che,” the Weekend Update anchor contemplates his future at “Saturday Night Live.”Michael Che tries not to impose too many rules on his fellow writers when they’re creating sketches for his HBO Max comedy series, “That Damn Michael Che.”“We’ll write what we think would be the funniest chain of events,” he explained recently. Yet for all the paths this would seem to leave open, their sketches — about the tribulations faced by a fictionalized version of Che — inevitably end at a similar destination.“I always come out looking bad,” he said. “I’m never the winner.”With a chuckle, he added that he understood why having his own series required these outcomes. “When you invite people to your house, you always eat last,” he said.In the sketch that opens the second season (due May 26), our star tries to help a man getting beaten up on a subway platform. But when the victim starts spouting bizarre obscenities, Che becomes the target of an internet backlash that threatens to wreck his career.The episode that ensues is (among other things) a parody of the “John Wick” movies and a satire of now-familiar rituals of so-called cancel culture as Che fumbles to restore his reputation.In contrast to the rapid-fire, headline-driven setups and punch lines that Che has delivered for eight seasons as a Weekend Update anchor on “Saturday Night Live,” “That Damn Michael Che” offers a looser blend of standup and sketch that gradually becomes a story or riff on contemporary themes.Che said of his future on “Saturday Night Live” that “my head has been at leaving for the past five seasons.”Andre D. Wagner for The New York TimesThat his streaming series has arrived at this broad formula — applied to quotidian annoyances, social injustices and high-class celebrity problems — was “not necessarily on purpose,” Che said.“I think that ended up being what happened,” he explained. “When you start a show, you’re looking to find its identity.”It’s a process that Che continues to navigate, not only on “That Damn Michael Che” but also in his standup and on “S.N.L.,” where he is learning to balance the demands of these intersecting assignments. He is still discovering the individual benefits of these formats, the best ways to work on them and even what he wants to say in them.While Che projects a certain unflappability in his live comedy, he can be self-scrutinizing offstage and openly unsure about his choices. If you squint a certain way, you might even see a guy at a crossroads, who has at least teased — then quickly laughed off — the idea of ending his productive “S.N.L.” tenure.As with developing a new series, Che suggested that figuring himself out professionally had also required trial and error. “Everything looks easy till you start doing it,” he said.On a Tuesday afternoon this month, Che, who turns 39 on May 19, was sitting in his “S.N.L.” dressing room, a darkened chamber lit by a TV silently playing “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze.” He was initially quiet and hidden under a hoodie — still reacclimating after a trip back from the Netflix comedy festival in Los Angeles, he said — but he became more gregarious as the conversation turned to his work.Though the cycle of another week at “S.N.L.” was underway, Che said he wasn’t stressed. “I like the dirty part of the game,” he said, by which he meant composing material: “Trying to crack the code, solving the puzzle. The part nobody sees is what’s really interesting to me.”That work ethic caught the attention of his colleagues at “S.N.L.,” where Che started contributing as a guest writer in 2013 and joined Colin Jost on the Weekend Update desk in the fall of 2014.Jost, who helped bring him onto the show, said that Che quickly became one of its best writers despite his lack of previous sketch-writing experience.“He just worked at it and figured it out,” Jost said in an email.Che, with his fellow Weekend Update anchor Colin Jost. If an audience doesn’t like a Che joke, Lorne Michaels said, “you don’t get the sense that he’s not going to sleep that night.” Will Heath/NBCLorne Michaels, the creator and longtime executive producer of “S.N.L.,” said he didn’t see any neediness in Che’s coolly confident stage presence. For most performers, Michaels explained, “it’s all about being loved or wanted, and he doesn’t seem terribly interested in that.”He added, “If he believes in the joke, he’s doing it. And he’ll acknowledge the audience’s response, but you don’t get the sense that he’s not going to sleep that night.”Jost said that while working with Che on Weekend Update, it “definitely took a while for us to figure it out, individually and together, and that’s why it’s satisfying now to be out there and get to enjoy it after years where it felt like a struggle.”“Che’s thing was always that he didn’t want to tell a joke that someone else could tell,” Jost said, adding that he believes Che had accomplished this: “Even a random joke at the end of Update that anyone could technically tell, he finds a way to do it that’s unique to him.”From one perspective, Che’s ascent has been rapid: after playing his first open mics in 2009, he was performing on David Letterman’s “Late Show” in 2012 and working as a correspondent on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” two years later.But for many years prior, Che cycled through other vocations: drawing and painting, designing T-shirts, working in customer service at a car dealership. All he wanted out of a career, he told me, was that it “wasn’t illegal or a gigolo.”His upbringing as the youngest of seven children raised in public housing on Manhattan’s Lower East Side is rarely far from his mind, and he frequently looks for ways to give back to the community that forged him.When I asked him, somewhat frivolously, what he’d do to keep pace with Jost’s recent investment in a retired Staten Island ferryboat, Che thought for a moment. Then he answered that he’d use a hypothetical windfall to renovate a community center at the Alfred E. Smith Houses that he frequented in his childhood.“Having more places and programs for kids to go would help them a lot,” he said. “Sometimes you can’t just go home. Sometimes there’s 12 people living in a three-bedroom apartment. Sometimes there’s bad things happening in your apartment.”He drew a breath and said to me, “That’s a very odd question.”When the opportunity arose for Che to create his own series with HBO in 2020, Michaels encouraged him to pursue it in tandem with his “S.N.L.” duties. “It’s in my interest for people to keep growing,” said Michaels, who is also an executive producer on “That Damn Michael Che.”But working out what the new show would be was a challenge. Che said he originally thought it would be an animated narrative — an idea he said he might still return to — then leaned back to sketch comedy, which is faster and more familiar to him.Che doesn’t buy into so-called cancel culture: “To me, there’s risk in everything you say and you have to take responsibility no matter what.”Andre D. Wagner for The New York Times“As the scripts started to come in, HBO started saying, it’d be great if you were on camera a lot more,” Che said. With his existing commitment to “S.N.L.,” Che said the questions he faced were, “What could we shoot? What could we do without having to miss work here?”Hiring a writing staff for “That Damn Michael Che” wasn’t difficult; the star just turned to the cadre of stand-ups he regularly hangs out with in comedy clubs.“Those late nights, talking about nothing, goofing off, turned into Mike getting his own show and saying, ‘Hey, come write,’” said Reggie Conquest, a comedian and actor (“Abbott Elementary,” “Scream”) who has written for both seasons of the series.As Conquest described them, those writing sessions “felt just like hanging out at a comedy club and talking like we normally do.”“It was very therapeutic,” he said, as they spoke “from real places, real experiences. And no matter how awful it might sound, you try to make it funny.”In Season 1, that strategy yielded sketches on topics like police violence and hesitancy around the Covid-19 vaccine. Reviewing the show for The Daily Beast, Kevin Fallon wrote, “The comedy and the intimacy of Che’s personal experience create a show that feels funnier, more resonant, and more current than he could ever hope to be on ‘S.N.L.’”Gary Richardson, the head writer of “That Damn Michael Che” and an “S.N.L.” veteran, said that the first season reflected the interests and preoccupations of its star. “He really wanted to make sure it was his show,” Richardson said. “It was a lot of pressure-testing his ideas.”On Season 2, Richardson said that Che “let other people cook more — he felt more comfortable opening it up and letting other folks add their flavor to the pot.”Che himself said his approach this season was to aim “more on the side of funny than on the side of making a point.” That has led to episodes where he tries to organize a brunch party honoring Black excellence and struggles in his shameless efforts to populate it with top celebrities; and where he confronts the repercussions of cancel culture, a phenomenon that Che said he doesn’t regard as meaningful or particularly new.“I don’t buy into it,” Che said. “To me, there’s risk in everything you say and you have to take responsibility no matter what. It’s funny for me to see people learn things that I had to know as a survival tactic my entire life.”In his own work, Che said, “I constantly think my career is over after a bad set or a bad Update. You always think, this is it, at any moment, I’ll be found out.” By having it happen to him in a sketch where an attempt at altruism leads to his downfall, he said, “I just thought it would be a very funny way to lose everything.”Not that Che expects to give up his habit of using social media to antagonize journalists who have criticized him or who he feels have misrepresented him or his friends.“I haven’t turned over a new leaf,” he said. “There is a power that I think writers know they have, that they won’t admit they have, in making perception a reality. I just like to make fun of that. It’s like, I see you — you see me.”Che admitted to a certain professional jealousy of peers like Dave Chappelle, Bill Burr and Michelle Wolf, whom he sees as especially polished stand-ups who can devote their time solely to honing their live acts.It would be understandable if Che were contemplating a life after “Saturday Night Live,” where he is the first Black person to become a head writer and the first to be an anchor on Weekend Update. He holds the second-longest tenure in the show’s history (behind his desk partner, Jost).When Che made a pop-up appearance at a Minneapolis hair salon in March, the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted him as saying, “This is my last year.” But in comments he later posted to his Instagram account, Che said that he wasn’t leaving the show.(In the post, which he has since deleted, Che wrote: “to comedy fans; please stop telling reporters everything you hear at a comedy show. youre spoiling the trick.”)“There’s people who hate me who can tell me every joke I’ve ever done on the show,” he said, referring to “S.N.L.”Andre D. Wagner for The New York TimesIn our conversation, Che continued to play his remarks off as a joke. “Who doesn’t say they’re going to quit their job when they’re at their other job?” he said. “I’m sure Biden says that twice a week.”In a more sincere tone, Che said, “My head has been at leaving for the past five seasons.”He added, “I do think that I’ve been here longer than I’ll be here. This show is built for younger voices and, at some point, there’ll be something more exciting to watch at the halfway mark of the show than me and dumb Jost.”(Jost said he construed that as a term of endearment. “Now I’m excited to pitch ‘Dumb Jost’ to Apple,” he responded.)Michaels said that “a year of change” was possible after the current season of “S.N.L.” but he hoped Che would not be part of that turnover.“If I had my way, he’ll be here,” Michaels said. “And I don’t always get my way. But when you have someone who’s the real thing, you want to hold on as long as you can.”Though the comedian hopes his work on “That Damn Michael Che” will stand on its own, Che recognized that his time at “S.N.L.” confers a unique status that no other program can duplicate.“There’s people who hate me who can tell me every joke I’ve ever done on the show,” he said.He added, “Even when it’s not exciting, people are like, when’s it going to be exciting? No one says it was never exciting. You understand that, at any moment, something cool could happen.”Speaking as a guy who already has two sketch shows and a standup act to choose from, Che said, “I got really lucky in my career. When I get bad stuff, I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m due, I can’t complain.’ I didn’t complain when it was good.” More

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    ‘Our Father’ Review: A Doctor’s God Complex Revealed

    A new documentary tells the story of siblings who unite to bring to justice the fertility specialist who impregnated their mothers with his sperm without consent.At the beginning of the gripping Netflix documentary “Our Father,” the camera creeps through a hallway toward a door with a doctor’s nameplate on it and into an examination room decorated with embroidered Bible verses, gynecological charts and baby photos. A foreboding score plays.There are no jump scares in Lucie Jourdan’s debut feature, about the biological children of Dr. Donald Cline, an Indiana fertility specialist, who for nearly a decade inseminated patients with his own sperm without their knowledge. But make no mistake, “Our Father” is a horror movie. Cline’s deception upends the lives of his unsuspecting patients’ children, and the film is rife with harrowing insights about medical malfeasance and God complexes.At the center of it is an unflinching protagonist. An only child, Jacoba Ballard was stunned when, after taking a DNA test, she received notifications of several half siblings from a genealogy website. Cline had assured hopeful parents that the clinic he operated never used a donor more than three times. We learn from the film that Ballard, who’s now in her 40s, is Sibling No. 0. The last sibling interviewed in “Our Father” is No. 61.Jourdan makes potent — and, at times, speculative — use of re-enactments. In a scene reminiscent of cinema’s version of a detective hunting a suspect, Ballard sits at a desk, evidence papering the wall. Except she is wearing a bright red hoodie, as if to declare, “This is what it looks like to take down the Big Bad Wolf.”There are interviews with Cline’s partner in the clinic and a nurse who assisted him, as well as a sit-down with a former Indiana prosecutor as the documentary tries to address the plaint, “How could this have happened?” “Our Father” also looks into Cline’s possible connection to QuiverFull, a conservative Christian movement that champions procreation. But it is the siblings — their anguish and their anger, as well as the compassion they extend to one another — that drive the narrative.Our FatherNot rated. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. Watch on Netflix. More

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    Martha Wainwright Tells a Few Stories She Might Regret

    With a new memoir, the singer-songwriter from a famous musical family says she is happy to be “letting go of this story of being No. 4 on the totem pole.”When Martha Wainwright was 14 years old, she moved to New York from her home in Montreal to live with her father, the singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III. Her mother, the Canadian folk star Kate McGarrigle, was busy with a new album and a concert tour, and so it was decided that Loudon would watch over Martha for a year. The New York experiment turned out to be something of a failure, though, according to Ms. Wainwright; she did poorly in school and stayed out late, as if in competition with a father who was sometimes out even later. But the year definitely had its upsides: “I became more like my father, as if the DNA in me that came from him started to wake up,” she writes in a new memoir, “Stories I Might Regret Telling You.”A few years later, she went with him on a tour of Britain, serving as his warm-up act and joining him onstage for father-daughter duets. One night she heard him introducing “I’d Rather Be Lonely,” a song she had figured was about an old girlfriend. So she was surprised when he told the audience it was about the year he had spent living with his teenage daughter. As Ms. Wainwright listened to him sing the key lines — “You’re still living here with me / I’d rather be lonely” — she began to cry.“A part of me wanted to jump to my death from my tiny seat,” she writes in the memoir. “Or, better yet, take off into the night, leaving him standing there waiting for me. But the show must go on, so I dried my tears and went down the stairs and on to the stage.”The new book, cigarette and all.HachetteConfessional art always comes at a cost, for its creators and subjects alike, as people in the Wainwright-McGarrigle family know all too well. Loudon, who rose to sudden success with the novelty hit “Dead Skunk,” has included songs about his family on a majority of his more than 25 albums, many of them devastatingly personal. Ms. McGarrigle, who made 10 albums as part of a duo with her sister Anna before her death in 2010, also wrote a number of autobiographical songs that touched on her marriage to Loudon, which ended in divorce, and their children.When Martha and her older brother, the singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, came of age, they joined what was by then an established family tradition. The first song Ms. Wainwright wrote was about the birth of a new half sibling, a wry welcome to her singular family; and a song on her brother’s 1998 debut album delved into his relationship with his mother.As children, Martha and Rufus sang for paying audiences at folk festivals. Later, when he had a deal with the DreamWorks record label and started touring the world, she was often his backup singer, an arrangement that eventually came to an end. “He needed to cut the fat and I needed to get out of his shadow,” she writes.Rufus and Martha Wainwright sing their father’s hit “Dead Skunk” at a show in London, circa 1984.Martha Wainwright Collection In New York, Ms. Wainwright performed in dive bars while putting herself through a series of crushes on unavailable men. She was by turns ambitious and self-destructive. On nights when she knew a label scout or producer was in the crowd, she would go onstage drunk or high. “I created an impossible situation for myself,” she writes. “I was afraid to fail but I kept setting myself up to fail.”As her brother’s fame grew, she struggled with her status as the least famous member of her nuclear family. And while her parents provided inspiration, she says in the book that they could have been more helpful. “I don’t know if you’re wondering where my dad was during those New York years,” she writes, “but at the time, I was wondering, too.”For a while Rufus was running around as part of a “sons of” club, a group that included Sean Lennon, Chris Stills and Harper Simon. “They were all getting signed and written about and had publicists and photo shoots and beautiful girlfriends,” Ms. Wainwright says in the memoir. “Were their songs better than mine?” The chip on her shoulder led her to write a grand statement song, its title a vulgar epithet. Contrary to what she has told journalists in the past, the song isn’t about her father — or, rather, it isn’t exclusively about him.In addition to the attention-grabbing title, the song had perhaps the closest thing to a pop hook to be found in her oeuvre up till then. Whereas the typical Martha Wainwright melody meanders as it showcases her acrobatic whisper-to-scream vocal range, this one was different: a folky strum-and-shout with straightforward lines like “Oh, I wish, I wish, I wish I was born a man.”The Guardian called the song a “masterpiece” when it appeared in 2005 as the centerpiece of “Martha Wainwright,” her first album. Critics admired her debut but couldn’t resist comparing her with the rest of her family. A Pitchfork reviewer praised her voice and her songs, only to add the caveat that her ability to write about personal matters with such candor “would be more remarkable if it weren’t a genetic trait.”Her next album, “I Know You’re Married but I’ve Got Feelings Too,” was partly produced by Brad Albetta, a bass player who, by the time of its 2008 release, was also her husband. Their relationship had always been tumultuous, but she had pushed for marriage anyway, partly because she wanted to “grow up” before losing her mother, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.Martha Wainwright with her mother, Kate McGarrigle, in London, 2009.Martha Wainwright Collection Her memoir goes deep into her mother’s illness and death, which coincided with the premature birth of Ms. Wainwright’s first child. In less capable hands, such material could come across as maudlin, but Ms. Wainwright has a light touch and an eye for telling detail. She describes wanting to put her mother’s cancer-ridden body in the same kind of incubator that was keeping her son alive, as well as the moment when she and Ms. McGarrigle compared their damaged bodies — her own fresh C-section incision, the chevron scar from chemo that covered her mother’s torso.Ms. Wainwright’s marriage limped along after her mother’s death. She clung to Mr. Albetta as a source of stability (not to mention bass playing). “I really like the makeup sex / It’s the only kind I ever get,” she sang from the stage while on tour for the album “Come Home to Mama,” with her husband close behind onstage.An early draft of “Stories I Might Regret Telling You” that contained more details about those years was used as an exhibit in their divorce proceedings in 2018. That version — “the whole enchilada,” as Ms. Wainwright described it in an interview — was pared down considerably before publication.Rather than zeroing in on the father of her children (a second son was born in 2014), Ms. Wainwright, 46, concludes the memoir by focusing on her creative and personal renaissance of recent years. She describes the aftermath of a show she gave in Los Angeles, when she emerged rumpled from the house of “someone everyone in the world wants to sleep with” full of joie de vivre and “glad to know that rock ’n’ roll was still alive and I was still a part of it.”The extended musical family in New York, 2012, from left to right: Martha Wainwright, the singer-songwriter Suzzy Roche, Rufus Wainwright, Loudon Wainwright III, and the singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche.David Corio for The New York TimesOn a recent Zoom call, she looked and sounded exactly as she does onstage: beautifully unvarnished, full of open-mouthed laughter. In the past few weeks she has been preparing to go on tour with a show that combines readings from the memoir and performances of songs on her fourth album, “Love Will Be Reborn.” She said a documentary filmmaker has been following her around, adding that she sometimes wished she had a larger-than-life persona to hide behind, like Tom Waits’s or Laurie Anderson’s.Lately, she added, she has been in the mood to do some serious spring cleaning in her building in Montreal, which she inherited from her mother. “There’s a back room that’s filled with the Kate McGarrigle and Anna McGarrigle archive and crap,” she said, gesturing toward a door behind her desk. “I feel like I’m almost about to light the whole thing on fire. I’m not going to do it literally, but I’m like, ‘OK, let’s call a museum and have them take it away.’ And I think that I’m kind of excited about it. And maybe I’m excited about letting go of this story of being No. 4 on the totem pole.”She said that when she thinks about her earlier albums, filled with so many songs referring to her marriage, she wonders whether she had created the situation in order to mine it for material. Now she’s in a relationship that inspires lyrics like “I got naked right away when I saw you / And my love was like the rain when I saw you.”If her contentment threatens her creative output, she’s fine with that. “I’ll keep the love and forgo the material, if need be,” she said.But later in our conversation, she revised that assessment, after mentioning her plan to pick up her guitar later in the day and try to write some new songs: “I haven’t in a while, so I’ll see if I’m too happy and I made a terrible mistake.”Ms. Wainwright said she has been wondering if she’s too happy to write songs.Alexi Hobbs for The New York TimesEven her relationship with her father seems in a good place. “Stories I Might Regret Telling You” begins with the story of her own birth, or, rather, the story of how she almost wasn’t born. Her father, she writes, tried to persuade her mother to have an abortion when she was pregnant with her, which is something he confessed to Ms. Wainwright when she was a teenager. “It hurt my feelings,” she writes with an understatement that makes the story sort of hilarious. “I had always felt a little out of place in the world, and knowing that I’d only just barely made the cut didn’t help matters any.”Three days before our interview, her father called her to say he loved the book.“I mean, his voice was a little tight when he said it,” Ms. Wainwright said. “He told me he didn’t see things exactly the same way, and I asked him if he could accept my version, and he said that he could accept it. And so that was a really nice moment for us.” More

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    Kevin Morby Chases Ghosts, and a New Album, in Memphis

    Since he was an anxious teen, Morby, a Kansas City singer-songwriter, has been fixated on death. By facing his fears in a mythical city, he found a way to reckon with it.MEMPHIS — Kevin Morby bounded into the lobby of the Peabody hotel on a Tuesday night in late April in a long red coat and twirled twice, stretching his arms toward the travertine columns of the century-old Southern institution. The songwriter, best known for solemn folk rock often fixated on death, beamed.An hour earlier and blocks away, he’d watched as the Memphis Grizzlies overcame a 13-point deficit to win a pivotal N.B.A. playoff game. The spoils of victory spilled into the hotel’s palatial entry — toasts, high-fives, the occasional whoop. A player piano dashed out a Scott Joplin rag, its pep perfectly scoring the electric scene. “That thing was so eerie when I was here writing,” Morby said, pointing as he passed, his grin briefly sagging. “I was so alone.”Just 18 months earlier, in October 2020, Morby escaped the impending pandemic winter in his hometown, Kansas City, Kan., by booking a three-week stay in Memphis. Since visiting the Peabody two years earlier with his girlfriend, Katie Crutchfield, the singer who performs as Waxahatchee, the city’s complicated history had become a muse.The sprawling hotel was so empty, the staff upgraded Morby to Room 409, a suite, where he focused on new songs with an intensity and patience that had always eluded him. He became a regular at some of the city’s morbid landmarks, too — the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; the spot on the Mississippi River where Jeff Buckley drowned; the haunted stretch of Highway 61 that leads into the Delta.“When lockdown was happening, I wanted to go to the darkest place possible,” he said. Memphis was almost shattered by pandemic more than a century ago.During that stint, Morby wrote the bulk of “This Is a Photograph,” his seventh solo album, due Friday. It is a confident 45-minute sashay through vulnerable devotionals and existential reflections, tuneful folk and handclap soul. Using Memphis as a lens for understanding the frailty of bodies and the dreams they harbor, the album reckons with survival as much as death.“There was zero urgency for Kevin to make an album, and that is a beautiful place to be as a songwriter,” Crutchfield said, wryly laughing by phone. “He is always working so fast, but a year with nothing allowed him to dial in. The word here is density.”When Morby was only 17, his third (and last, until this year) therapist asked him why he was there. “I told him I was so afraid of dying,” Morby, now 34, remembered during an interview weeks before the basketball game. “There was this life-affirming moment where he was like, ‘Kevin, what’s so wrong with death?’ I guess nothing!”As his parents shuffled among various cities for work, Morby had morphed from a sports-loving kid into an especially anxious preteen. In Oklahoma City, he was terrified to learn friends had lost parents in the bombing there; later, in Kansas City, bullets on a playground convinced him his school was the next Columbine.“He might be sitting on the couch, and he would have these anxiety attacks,” his father, Jim, remembered. “He felt it coming, but it would happen anyway.”Dual odes to Jeff Buckley are at the center of “This Is a Photograph.” Whitten Sabbatini for The New York TimesThere were hospitals, therapists and an alternative school founded by a “Vietnam veteran and total hippie,” Morby said. Finally, after a particularly awful spell, his parents offered their son a compromise — he could drop out, granted he finish his G.E.D. and try a nearby junior college. “I felt like such a poor parent,” his mother, Sandy, said, “but I water up thinking about the relief on his face.”When Morby turned 18, he boarded an eastbound train with one goal: joining a band in New York. He started writing songs in seventh grade, lyrics-lined notebooks dotting the house. A Bob Dylan anthology led to the indie rock of the Mountain Goats and the Microphones, who placed less emphasis on production than poignancy. “You’re telling me I can just get a tape recorder and sing?” he said. “It felt like acceptance.” Morby joined the ascendant psych-folk band Woods and toured incessantly, then co-founded the scruffy pop-rock group the Babies. But double duty, plus jobs delivering food and babysitting, exhausted him. He bailed on both bands to take a chance alone. “There’s always something to lose,” he said, “but I thought maybe there was more to be gained.”Morby wrote and recorded at a feverish pace, releasing an album or EP every year since 2013 except one, even while moving from New York to Los Angeles and back to Kansas City. He recorded in a hurry, embracing mistakes and tossed-off lines while striving for productivity over perfection. “If I wasn’t not working,” he admitted, “I felt crazy.”This harried schedule stemmed in part from his fear it would all vanish. Soon after arriving in New York, Morby befriended Jamie Ewing, the dynamo leader of the punk band Bent Outta Shape — “this magical, hilarious guy, always ahead of the curve.” Morby loved Ewing and the artistic possibilities he represented. Ewing died in 2008 from a heroin overdose, which jump-started Morby’s drive.“I had this scarcity mentality,” Morby said, also referencing Jay Reatard, the Memphis garage-rocker who suggested that writing one’s best songs was really a race against death soon before he died. “I had to collect what I could while I could.”A medical scare in January 2020, though, prompted a change. Before a family dinner, Morby’s father accidentally doubled his dosage of heart medication and passed out at the table. He recovered, but Morby had worried he was watching his father die.That night, looking at old photos with his mother, he was struck by an image of his father — then 32, the same age Morby was about to be — posing shirtless in the Texas sun. He contemplated his family’s sudden frailty and began writing “This Is a Photograph,” a galloping track about death’s inevitability and the gratitude the fait accompli should inspire. “This is what I’ll miss about being alive,” Morby howls, putting himself inside his father’s former frame. What had his father lost? What would he lose?Morby took those questions to Memphis. As he drove his blue Ford pickup down Highway 61 to the infamous Crossroads or across Mississippi to sit on Elvis’s boyhood porch, he pondered how big dreams crumbled there. He obsessed especially over Buckley, who had applied for a job as a butterfly keeper at the Memphis Zoo while waiting for his band to arrive in 1997. Passers-by soon spotted his body floating at the foot of Beale Street.“The dead can help shape the living,” Morby said. “I want to be open to that kind of magic.”Whitten Sabbatini for The New York TimesMorby visited the little bungalow where Buckley lived and even recorded the sound of the current where he waded into the water. “You’re Jeff Buckley — you’ve achieved versions of the dream, but there’s still something you’re trying to accomplish,” Morby said. “I relate.”Dual odes to Buckley shape the centerpiece of “This Is a Photograph.” Graced by gospel harmonies, “Disappearing” offers caveat emptor for the kind of tortured artists who might try dipping into the Mississippi. (“I really want to swim in it,” he confessed from its banks, adding he knew it was a bad idea.) “A Coat of Butterflies” slowly unspools like an empathetic eulogy for a musician who spent a lifetime defining himself in light of his father’s fame. Morby realized he’d finally nailed the track as he left Memphis after the album’s third and final session, which he repeatedly called “the best four days of my life.” He’d faced his fear of death and walked away.The morning before the triumphant basketball game, Morby went for a run along a concrete path that skirts the Mississippi, a hobby he took up soon after turning 30. The trail dumped him beneath towering overpasses and a small clearing that led to the river, where Buckley is believed to have entered. Just as he turned around, two butterflies fluttered beside him for several seconds. It was a sign, he thought, that he was moving in the right direction.“It’s like you’re a photographer. You know what you want to take a picture of, but I knew I couldn’t take a photo I could develop until I got here,” he said, his voice rising above the Peabody’s din. “The dead can help shape the living. I want to be open to that kind of magic.” More

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    At 85, the Jazz Bassist Ron Carter Still Seeks ‘A Better Order of Notes’

    The famously curious musician and bandleader will celebrate his milestone birthday with a career-spanning Carnegie Hall concert.On a recent morning on the Upper West Side, the bassist and bandleader Ron Carter sat on the far end of a plush, rust-colored sofa in his spacious 10th floor apartment, an oak-hued space with ornate sculptures and panoramic views of the bustling neighborhood blocks below. In the background wafted a gentle melody from Antônio Carlos Jobim, the Brazilian multi-instrumentalist and a former collaborator. The place exuded a grandeur that describes the man, too. It’s no surprise that Carter — Mr. Carter, Maestro, a jazz legend — lives here.With over 60 albums as bandleader and countless others as a sideman, and more than 2,220 recording sessions to his credit, Carter has long let his music do the talking. During our conversation, he seemed guarded, resting his head in a balled-up right fist and looking away when answering questions. But on this April day, he had something specific to discuss: a career-spanning show at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday with his own trio, quartet and octet to celebrate his 85th birthday.“He’s as straight as an arrow,” said Herbie Hancock, the hallowed pianist who met Carter at Miles Davis’s house in 1963, in a phone interview. They were playing tunes in what would become the trumpeter’s Second Great Quintet. “Miles played a little bit, then he threw his horn down on the couch and went upstairs,” he added. “But before he did, he told Ron to take over. He targeted Ron to do that because he knew that Ron could. Ron is a no nonsense guy.”Carter grew up as something of a prodigy in the Midwest, in a family that played instruments, yet wasn’t musical, per se. “Most Black people in the ’40s and ’50s, the families had some kind of common bond in the house before TV and all the stuff took over,” he said. “It was always someone who played piano, you had this choir singing at the house, normal African American communal in-house music.”Carter turned to the bass in high school as a way to stand out in the orchestra.Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for The New York TimesHe took up the cello at 11 when a teacher starting an orchestra laid out the instruments on the table and it “seemed to strike my fancy,” he said, and played it until he got to high school. But he noticed he didn’t get the same opportunities as white students, despite being told how talented he was. High school orchestra members were sometimes asked to play background music for dinners and P.T.A. meetings — everyone except the Black students. In 1954, Carter saw that the orchestra’s only bassist was graduating. He turned to the instrument as a way to stand out.Discrimination followed him to Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where Carter played bass in the orchestra: The guest conductor Leopold Stokowski, then leading the Houston Symphony, said he liked Carter as a player and person, but Texas wasn’t progressive enough to have a Black musician in the orchestra. So Carter started playing at a local jazz club called the Ridge Crest Inn, working as the de facto bassist for touring musicians passing through town.“They said I played really good, and they thought that if I got to New York City, I could find work there,” Carter said. He moved to the city after graduating in 1959 and landed a spot playing in a band led by the drummer Chico Hamilton while also pursuing a master’s at the Manhattan School of Music. In 1961, he earned the advanced degree and released his debut album, “Where?,” which featured two other stalwarts — the alto saxophonist Eric Dolphy and the pianist Mal Waldron.“I wanted to paint a picture of what I could do,” Carter said of his first LP. Aside from Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettiford, bassists weren’t seen as bandleaders; being able to carry out his own vision was a rebellious act. “By and large, bass players were not getting the attention for those details that everyone else was getting,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is my chance to do what I think is my point of view.’ I took advantage of that.” Concurrently, his star rose in the New York scene; by 1963, he was perhaps the hottest young talent in the city. The coolest jazz purveyor in the area, and likely the world, soon came calling.Carter was working as a freelance musician with folk and blues singers, and was playing a club gig with the trumpeter Art Farmer, when Miles Davis asked him to play bass in the new quartet he was forming. Davis’s band was headed to California for a six-week tour, which meant Carter would have to quit Farmer’s group. Other musicians would have been likely to leave to play with the star trumpeter, but Carter — out of respect for Farmer — didn’t budge so easily.The saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis and Carter onstage in Rochester, N.Y.Paul Hoeffler/Redferns“I said, ‘Mr. Davis, I have a job already for the next two weeks with Mr. Farmer,’” Carter recalled. “If you will ask him to let me out of my gig, yes. If not, I’ll see you when it’s over.” Farmer let the young bassist tour with Davis. “Because I gave him the respect that he was due,” he continued. “I think it showed Miles that I was a man of my word, that I was an honorable person.”In Davis’s home and on the road, Hancock was taken by Carter’s tone and intuition. “He had the mind of someone that continued to explore and try new things,” he said. “His playing was clean and clear and definitive, and he was always right in the pocket at just the right place. He knew which way to go, to make it not just an exciting listening and playing experience but one that opened doors to new possibilities.”The group lasted five years, disbanding in 1968 when Davis sought an electric sound that merged rock, funk and ambient on albums like “In a Silent Way,” “Bitches Brew” and “On the Corner.” But you don’t get those records without the Second Great Quintet, and artists like Carter, Hancock, the tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter and the drummer Tony Williams pushing Davis’s music to uncomfortable places. “Every night was a chance to play some wonderful music with some lovely people,” Carter said. “I still look back in awe at what we were doing, not understanding what it was, but it worked for us night in and night out.”Carter kept evolving, even as the popularity of jazz gave way to funk as the dominant genre in Black music. He taught jazz at the City College of New York, worked as a sideman at the record labels Blue Note and CTI, and has credits with everyone from Roberta Flack and Gil Scott-Heron to Lena Horne and Archie Shepp. Carter also embraced hip-hop later in his career, and played on A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album “The Low End Theory.” (He hadn’t heard of the group, but one of his sons advised him to do the session.) The “surprise of the music” has kept him going, he said.The bassist Stanley Clarke met Carter as a teenager in 1970 and was enamored with Carter’s consistency on the instrument. “He’s kind of like the center of a concentric circle,” Clarke said in a phone interview. “He pretty much controls every band he’s in. On every record I’ve ever heard him play, the first thing you go to is the bass.”By 1963, Carter was one of the hottest young talents in New York City. Soon, Miles Davis came calling.Elliott Jerome Brown Jr. for The New York TimesCarter, he said, is the culmination of the great bassists before him — Mingus, Pettiford and Paul Chambers — who all pulled magnificent tones from the instrument, paving the way for someone like Carter to synthesize it into something more melodic and wistful. “It’s all directed and converged in this person,” Clarke said. “There isn’t a bass player that’s out here today that has any sense that is aware of the bass, that’s not influenced by Ron Carter.”While he’s willing to discuss the past, Carter can’t help but focus on the future: his upcoming concerts and making sure he’s always improving.“Can I find a better order of notes that I didn’t find last week?” he asked.His dedication to his bandmates is always top of mind. “Can I be responsible for the standard I’m setting for them?” he continued. “Can I make them see how responsible I am to the music that I’m presenting to them?”“I’m going to make sure that I let them know that I appreciate their love, their care,” he added reflectively, looking toward a window. “I’m still getting better at doing what I do right now.”“For the Love of Ron,” an 85th birthday celebration with Ron Carter and Friends, is at 8 p.m. on Tuesday at the Perelman Stage of Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium; carnegiehall.org. 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