HISTORICAL HOUSEKEEPING: You go along in life, doing your work, raising your family, paying bills, savoring sensual treats, living. Suddenly, milestones sneak up on you, with little warning. Suddenly, you’re not the smartest or youngest person in the room, and youth seems wasted on the wasted young. Of course, we’re circling around the fact that Fringe Beat has turned 20. Surprise, surprise, it is the second-oldest continuous column in Santa Barbara’s journalism jungle—after Barney Brantingham’s—despite its title’s self-defining, self-fulfilling prophecy as a lurker on the “fringes.” Go figure.
A bit of background may be in order. In May 1980, I was a young upstart, launching my journalist-critic-pundit-scribbler career in earnest (more truthfully, falling backward into the field, having wearied of playing in Top 40 bands, and eager to indulge an already serious addiction to culture of many types). I began writing for the local leftist rag, the News & Review, but I had also been reading the daily News-Press from childhood. I enjoyed getting my fingers dirty with both and was a fan of columnists in both papers—Barney’s Off the Beat in the News-Press and Heidi Benson’s cheerily, cheekily ironic Tiki Beat in the N&R. Another “beat” (a handy catch term for a column re: music) was a slow-growing gleam in someone’s eye.
Ten years later, the Columnist Within was summoned into Independent editor Marianne Partridge’s office, and Fringe Beat was born. From the outset, the idea was to pay heed to, ahem, offbeat music and culture, especially jazz, world music, contemporary and experimental music, and other sounds left of pop-cultural Yuppie Chow. But along the way, that narrow definition has become rubberized and democratized to include all manner of sounds tugging on my ears and consciousness. I gave Ken Burns a proper thrashing for his immoral and abominable Jazz doc (for which I heard “yea”s and “nay”s from around the country), and waxed poetic about guilty pleasure local gal Katy Perry and indie-heroic Deerhoof, as well as Wagnerian Ringmania in SoCal (currently overtaking Los Angeles).
I’ve had solid support systems in the front and back office: Michael Smith was the column’s first editor, then D.J. Palladino, Duncan Wright, and my intrepid current editor Charles Donelan. All have no doubt sometimes puzzled over what this thing, exactly, is, but Fringe Beat always seemed perfectly logical to me—granted that my powers of logic and rationality lag behind my taste for a good riff. In culture, the center may or may not hold, but the fringes prevail, and that’s where you will always find some of the more interesting enticements. The beat goes on, in polyrhythmic waves, and there is never a lack of material to grapple with each week—including the occasional birthday navel-gaze session.
THE JAZZ SEASON, PAST TENSE: What a not-long-enough, strange trip it has been in Santa Barbara’s jazz concert season. When bass ace Christian McBride capped off his satisfying concert at the Lobero recently, raising the bar on “mainstream” jazz with his hot new band Inside Straight, he also capped off a wildly syncopated jazz season. Wynton Marsalis kicked it off last September at the Arlington with his high-flying neo-con big band, Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, but then the town went spookily dark.
Infamously exaggerated reports of a suspension of the beloved Jazz at the Lobero series (sorry about that) were set to rest when pianist Brad Mehldau presented a memorable, characteristically melancholic and virtuosic solo show at the Lobero in January, followed by grand singers Tierney Sutton and Dee Dee Bridgewater (whose show I was out of town for, but heard it was up to her usual high standards), and Terence Blanchard’s sturdy fine band. At Campbell Hall, UCSB Arts & Lectures’ erratic jazz pulse quickened with the always-fascinating S.F. Jazz Collective and Pat Metheny’s bells and whistles-enhanced solo Orchestrion Project. Not bad, all in all, although greedy jazz fans hereabouts yearn for more, without leaving town.