Your 11 Weekend Treats: The OZY Highlights Reel

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It’s been a pretty chilled-out news week, all things considered. JUST KIDDING! With Russian diplomat expulsions, Kim Jong Un’s surprise visit to China and tech stock turmoil in the markets, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the craziness of the now. To help you get a better grip on the world and where it’s headed, OZY helps you see beyond the news cycle — and beyond your bubble. So sit back this weekend and enjoy the best of the past seven days on OZY.

No. 1: Need to know: Can Modi’s New Nemesis Take Down the Prime Minister?

 

Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani is a newly elected legislator taking on Indian PM Narendra Modi and his ruling party.
Why You Should Care: Because he’s rising up for the lowest caste.

Much more >>

No. 2: See beyond: Brazil’s Music Scene Goes Gender Fluid

 

A growing number of LGBTQ musicians are thriving in Brazil, challenging taboos at a time when it is increasingly dangerous to do so. 
Why You Should Care: Music has long broken barriers. Now it’s breaking stereotypes. 

Much more >>

No. 3: Watch: Sweet, Hydroponic Basil — the Secret to the Best Vegan Pizza

 

The freshest basil in New York City comes from a surprising place — and it looks like a spaceship.
Why You Should Care: The secret to the sweetness lies in the leaf size.

Much more >>

No. 4: Explore: This Museum Gives You the Long, Curious History of Tattoos

 

This NYC shrine to the art of inking draws fervent, inquiring minds from around the world.
Why You Should Care: Because you should see what the first electric pen looks like.

Much more >>

 

No. 5: Did you know: The Surprisingly Inclusive Economy of America’s Opioid Capital

 

Dayton, Ohio, lags in many ways, but it ranks high in building inclusive growth from the bottom up. 
Why You Should Care: Because immigrants are reversing decades of population decline in the Rust Belt.

Much more >>

No. 6: Listen: There’s Nothing Quite Like Mongolian Hip-Hop

 

It’s Def Jam beats meets throat singing, folk music and horsehead fiddles.
Why You Should Care: It’s a rap scene no one knows about.

Much more >>

No. 7: Flashback: Hollywood’s First Big Silence Breaker — Marilyn Monroe

 

One of Hollywood’s biggest legends was also one of the first to call out the industry’s culture of sexual harassment. 
Why You Should Care: Marilyn Monroe was an early silence breaker in Hollywood — and she doesn’t get the recognition she deserves.

Much more >>

No. 8: Meet: The Syrian Filmmaker Documenting Jihadi Family Values

 

Talal Derki is part of a new wave of Syrian artists proving themselves on a global stage.
Why You Should Care: Because his home looks like something out of Mad Max.

Much more >>

No. 9: Life inside: So, You’re Going to Prison

 

Derek Meyer Galanis, from the so-called Galanis crime family, never had a real job until prison. Now: a memoir on his time inside.
Why You Should Care: Prison truth is stranger than prison fiction.

Much more >>

No. 10: Go deep: Can Social Rank Impact Human Health? She Says Yes

 

Evolutionary anthropologist Jenny Tung is studying the biological impact of social relationships on health and longevity.
Why You Should Care: Because social relationships might literally be our lifelines.

Much more >>

No. 11: Believe it or not: Burkina Faso — the World Leader in Combating HIV

 

The poor, landlocked West African nation has cut its HIV prevalence rate by almost 90 percent since 2001.
Why You Should Care: This model of success holds lessons for other, richer nations. 

Much more >>

Syria, the Ultimate Test in American Diplomacy

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OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS

Seven years into the most violent conflict sparked by 2011’s so-called Arab Spring, the fighting has resumed in Syria after a brief lull — and with no end in sight. It has settled into a military and diplomatic slugging match in which the government of Bashar al-Assad seeks to consolidate and extend what remains of its control while the several major external powers taking part — Russia, the United States, Iran and Turkey — maneuver to hold on to territory and influence.

The original cause of the war, meanwhile, remains unaddressed and continues to motivate fighters. This is the hatred that the majority of Syrians, primarily the Sunni Arab population, has for the harsh minority rule of the Alawite clan headed by the Assad family for the last 47 years. Syria’s Kurds, 7 to 10 percent of the population, also have grievances and have allied with the United States in the fighting.

Although the United States began calling for Assad’s ouster in 2011, the Russians and Iranians have preserved his rule with their vigorous intervention. Since arriving in 2015, Russia has assisted Assad with weaponry, advice and a bombing campaign that has resulted in large loss of life but gradually expanded Assad’s control so that he has now regained about 35 to 40 percent of the country, including most major cities. Russia is motivated to preserve its port and basing facilities but also wants to enhance its role in the Middle East — a linchpin in Moscow’s global effort to extend its influence. Moscow has largely succeeded in this with little hope at this point of reversing its gains.

This is the political and military thicket in which the United States must pursue its aims.

Iran similarly wants to preserve its equities in Syria, which has, since the early 1980s, served as the gateway for support of its proxy and ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah — the Shia Arab organization that has managed to balance a militant terrorist wing with a legitimate political role in the Lebanese government. Iran, which devoted substantial forces and took heavy losses in the Syrian fighting, also looks to establish a fixed presence in Syria — of enormous concern to Israel, which must now contend with a well-armed Iranian presence just across the border near the Golan Heights. Although Israel has conducted several attacks on Iranian positions, Tehran has largely consolidated its goals. With this and its strong influence in the neighboring government of Iraq, Iran now has an arc of influence extending about 1,000 miles from Tehran to the Mediterranean — a long-cherished goal.

 

Turkey’s goals are more complex. For a time, it called for the ouster of Assad but has deemphasized this as Assad has recovered. Ankara has fought on the ground and by air against ISIS, which has carried out brutal attacks in Turkey (though at one point Turkey was an entry point for fighters joining ISIS in Syria). But Turkish leaders also want to ensure that Syria’s Kurds, in control of nearly a quarter of Syrian territory before Turkey drove them out of their Afrin enclave recently, do not gain autonomy in any Syrian settlement.

Although the United States has partnered with these Kurds, who have proven fierce antiterrorist fighters, Turkey fears they are allied with militant Kurds in Turkey who are pressing for autonomy or independence. This has caused serious tension between the United States and NATO ally Turkey. Ankara’s broader fear is that the Kurds, who spill also into Iran and Iraq, will ultimately unite in an independent Kurdistan that would cut deeply into Turkish territory, a concern historically shared by all four countries.

This is the political and military thicket in which the United States must pursue its aims, which under the Trump administration are hard to pin down. Trump’s emphasis has been on destroying what remains of ISIS, and this has succeeded insofar as the group’s physical “caliphate” — its Syrian capital in Raqqa — is gone. That said, ISIS still exists in pockets in Syria and Iraq, and surviving fighters can retreat into a global network of affiliates and allied groups.

Beyond this, the United States has either been unable or disinterested in gaining traction in the diplomacy aimed at achieving a political settlement. A United Nations process has largely been ineffective, and a separate process run by the Russians, Iranians and Turks has also floundered. The Trump administration has so far shown little interest in grabbing the leadership of either forum. So at this point, diplomacy is either moribund or largely driven by Russia.

The decision looming for the United States going forward is whether its priorities lie in the tactical realm — countering terrorists and aiding those who oppose them — or in the larger geopolitical arena that the Syrian war represents. It is certainly one of the areas of great power competition that Trump’s new National Security Strategy says is the mark of this age.

How Washington plays will send messages to the region and the world beyond, which is waiting to see if we intend to implement that strategy by taking on the burdens of leadership — or whether by “America First,” Trump is really signaling a step back from America’s global role.

The Key to Winning the Final Four? Slow It Down

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Shock was the first sensation that rippled through college basketball following 16th-seeded University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s historic opening-round annihilation of No. 1 seed Virginia on March 16. Then came the rage, ridicule and discrediting of the Virginia Cavaliers. Those who watched the game couldn’t believe that this same team had dominated Atlantic Coast Conference competition all season, while those who heard the news after the fact were convinced that Virginia was a fraud. The one thing most people agreed on? Virginia’s deliberate, plodding offense plays too slow to ever make the Final Four.

Well, those critics are wrong. Yes, it’s true that Virginia employed the slowest offensive tempo in the nation this season (351st, according to KenPom, college basketball’s leading analytics site), but that wasn’t the reason for their downfall. Want proof? Just check out this year’s Final Four.

Two of the slowest-paced teams in the country made the Final Four.

That’s right, while Saturday night’s late game features two of the most potent offenses in college basketball in Villanova and Kansas, the early game between Loyola University Chicago and Michigan will be a slow-tempo chess match  of epic proportions. According to KenPom, Michigan ranks 31st in the country in offensive efficiency while Loyola comes in at No. 60. Both teams average over 1 point per possession, but what truly separates these teams — and what they have in common with Virginia — is exceptional defense and an ability to control the tempo. While Virginia was the nation’s best defensive team and played the slowest pace on offense, Michigan and Loyola are not far off. When it comes to tempo, KenPom ranks Michigan 326th in the country versus Loyola’s 315th. Syracuse, which also made a surprise run to the Sweet 16, ranks 345th.

 

If “slow” sounds like a bad thing, it’s not. The ability to lock down defensively while controlling pace with efficient, effective offense can cripple an opponent. On Saturday, we’ll see which of college basketball’s grinders folds first. 

After beating Florida State in the Elite Eight, Michigan coach John Beilein already had his next opponent in mind. “They’re not Cinderella anymore,” Beilein told reporters. “When you win 30 games, you’re not a Cinderella team, you’re really good.”

Loyola moves the ball as well as any team not called the Golden State Warriors.

Loyola may have burst on the scene as a March Madness Cinderella, but anyone familiar with the program knows that postseason success has been a long time coming. For all intents and purposes, this program is the mid-major Virginia. With five players scoring between 10.3 and 13.2 points per game, the Ramblers are incredibly balanced. They move the ball as well as any team not called the Golden State Warriors, passing up a plethora of good shots for great ones while tiring out the defense. According to Synergy Sports, 40 percent of Loyola’s jump shots come unguarded. And an onslaught of ball movement not only produces open looks, it allows Loyola to spend more time on offense and keep the ball out of the opponents’ hands.

En route to the program’s second trip to the Final Four in five years, Michigan has gone through spurts of looking like the most dangerous team in the country — particularly when their shots are falling. Currently riding a 13-game win streak after capturing the Big Ten tournament, the bigger, faster Wolverines should win Saturday’s matchup on paper.

But while dominant displays like a 99-72 Sweet 16 beat down of Texas A&M give credence to the idea that Michigan is an offensive juggernaut, that’s not always the case. While Beilein’s squad does rank 31st in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, they also like to slow it down. Beilein is an offensive mastermind, so eating up time on offense lets him devise plays for versatile big man Moritz Wagner and the talented trio of guards Charles Matthews, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Zavier Simpson. “They run so many different things and have so many different calls within [Beilein’s] system,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said after losing to Michigan in the Big Ten championship. “It’s a tough prep.”

But what makes Michigan especially dangerous this season, like Loyola and Virginia, is defense. The Wolverines’ defense ranks fourth in college basketball, according to KenPom. They’re above average at forcing turnovers (109th) and limit opponents’ opportunities exceptionally well, as evidenced by their 31st-ranked defensive rebounding percentage. So, will Michigan be the Power Five team finally able to solve the Loyola mystery? If so, they’ll be forced to bend while breaking the Ramblers. At 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency, Loyola can go blow for blow with the Wolverines.

Of course they can. After all, the best chess matches get physical.

Sweet, Hydroponic Basil: The Secret to the Best Vegan Pizza

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Your relationship with basil may consist solely of shaking some sad little green flakes into a casserole dish or saucepan. If that’s the case, my friend, you’re missing out. Fresh sweet basil is a delightfully aromatic, hugely flavorful gift to your food, whether it’s bruschetta, pasta, panini, pho, mixed drinks or even basil ice cream. And pizza, of course. 

But if you live in a city, it can be tough getting your hands on the fresh stuff. Square Roots in Brooklyn, New York, has taken on the challenge of getting basil from farm to mouth quickly and efficiently by growing plants in hydroponic shipping containers. The 40-foot-long containers — whose lighted interiors have an almost disco-like feel — can produce up to 50 pounds of basil a week, using just 8 gallons of water. 

The secret to the fresher taste? Leaf size. Being grown in a controlled environment means the plants can be carefully monitored. The larger the leaf size, the less bitter the flavor. Also, being grown locally means less processing and travel time. 

Sweet basil is packed with vitamin K, zinc, calcium, magnesium, potassium and dietary fiber. Which should make you feel even better about blending up some handfuls into a delicious pesto that makes the perfect base for a pizza.

From the Rooted food show starring OZY’s plant-based food enthusiast, Nick Shippers, here’s a quick way to make a vegan sweet basil pesto pizza.

Vegan Sweet Basil Pesto Pizza

Dairy-free Parmesan

  • 2 cups (150 g) raw cashews
  • 1/4 cup (15 g) nutritional yeast
  • Salt and garlic powder (both optional)

Basil Pesto

  • 2 cups sweet basil, lightly packed
  • 1 large garlic clove, diced
  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Pine nuts and lemon juice (both optional)

Pizza

  • Pizza dough
  • 1 cup red tomato sauce seasoned with salt and pepper
  • Dairy-free cheese
  • Toppings of your choice


Method

  • Preheat oven to 350 F.
  • Prepare dairy-free Parmesan: Add ingredients to a blender and mix until thoroughly combined.
  • Prepare basil pesto: Add ingredients to a blender. While mixing, slowly add extra-virgin olive oil until texture is smooth and creamy.
  • Assembly: Roll out pizza dough thinly. Spread pesto and sauce evenly across dough. Top with dairy-free cheese and selected toppings.
  • Bake on pizza sheet for 8 to 10 minutes, or until cheese is melted and browned.
 

She’s Using Jewelry to Help Solve Crimes

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A piece of jewelry can be many things: a sign of wealth, a treasured heirloom, a pledge of commitment. But it is rarely thought of as an investigative tool.

Maria Maclennan is out to change that. The 29-year-old Scottish designer is the world’s first forensic jeweler, bringing together art and science to explore how jewelry can be used as a method of identification.

“I was fascinated by jewelry but didn’t want to necessarily design or make it,” says Maclennan, who trained in jewelry design at the University of Dundee. She explains that identifying people through their jewelry, rather than making it herself, allows her to explore its meaning and “why people form bonds and attachments with jewelry.”

It’s seeing things like jewelry that give glimpses and insights into people’s lives that is the most upsetting. That stops you in your tracks.

Maria Maclennan

Maclennan is quick to point out that she is not a forensic scientist, but she is thoughtful and articulate about her subject. When we speak she had just submitted her Ph.D. thesis on the use of jewelry in forensic identification.

She explains how watches and jewelry have a number of strengths as forensic tools. While not sufficient by themselves to identify someone, as unique personal effects they can be used in combination with other evidence, giving them the same level of credibility as a person’s blood group.

The ability of gemstones and precious metals to withstand high temperatures and extreme impacts, as well as immersion in water, means they are sometimes the only intact objects left after an air crash or a natural disaster, says Maclennan. She adds that diamonds and gemstones are also effective at collecting DNA and skin cells that can help identify their wearer.

 

Watches are also helpful for identification. Many high-end timepieces have serial numbers, allowing them to be traced even if they are damaged. Maclennan cites one notorious case of a partially decomposed body that was pulled from the sea in 1996 and identified by the Rolex found on its wrist. The watch not only helped police identify the deceased as a man named Ronald Platt, it also led them to his killer.

Maclennan has worked with forensic teams in a number of countries. She helped identify remains in the aftermath of the 2015 Germanwings plane crash in France. She also spent a month in a South African mortuary in the wake of another air disaster in Namibia. Her master’s degree involved creating an international jewelry classification system for missing persons, in collaboration with Interpol.

Despite these credentials, convincing forensic scientists of her message has not been easy. Not only is her subject unique but she is physically petite, with delicate tattoos around her neck and on her forehead, and facial piercings. She says that she has to work hard to prove herself. “There is a little bit of suspicion about why I’m interested in the research,” she says.

Robert Organ, deputy warden of the Goldsmiths’ Company assay office in London, recalls how he first met Maclennan while she was researching her degree. “She’s, well, striking in appearance,” he says with a laugh. “But as soon she opens her mouth, she’s engaging, quite brilliant.… It’s funny how appearances can deceive sometimes.”

Despite the raised eyebrows, Maria Maclennan is gaining recognition as a pioneer in her field.

An accomplished speaker, she uses ingenious methods to illustrate her talks. Because so many of the objects she works with belong to victims or are in confidential crime files, she re-creates them in tableaux.

“It brings a bit more creativity to what I do,” she says. “I’ve bought old secondhand watches and smashed and bashed a few of them to try to re-create conditions that I’ve seen in disaster scenarios or after a crime.”

There is, of course, a great leap from re-creating the effects of disaster to dealing with the aftermath of a real-life catastrophic event. Maclennan admits that seeing a dead body for the first time shocked her.

But “it’s seeing things like jewelry that give glimpses and insights into people’s lives that is the most upsetting. That stops you in your tracks,” she says.

Jewelry and other personal effects take on even greater symbolism for the families of the deceased, particularly if there are no physical remains for them to bury. “They in some ways serve as a kind of proxy for the event that’s taken place … because they’ve physically accompanied the individual through that experience,” Maclennan notes.

“No matter how traumatic or awful that might have been, it was with them at the end.”

You Could Be Eating CRISPR Food in Five Years

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Imagine walking into the grocery store to see shelves lined with bright yellow corn, juicy red tomatoes and hunks of watermelon so vibrantly pink and green they’re practically in Technicolor. And the flavor is just as wonderful: crisp and juicy as if they’re straight from the farmers market. But these delicious fruits and veggies actually came from a large-scale farming operation delivering to stores across the country. They’ve had their genes edited using CRISPR technology to make them more nutritious and better tasting. This is the vision of biotech scientists across the world using CRISPR to edit the genes of crops and livestock right now.

That dream may not be too far off. CRISPR, which works by finding and then replacing, editing or deleting a genetic sequence inside an organism, is currently being tested in agricultural products in several countries, including the U.S., U.K. and Spain, among others. DuPont Pioneer is developing a strain of CRISPR-edited corn that could be on the market in five years. U.K. livestock company Genus Breeding is using CRISPR in animal embryos to breed healthier pigs and cows at a faster pace. Scientists at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Spain recently used CRISPR to edit wheat so that it’s safe for people with celiac disease. Berkeley, California, startup Caribou Biosciences, the first company to commercialize CRISPR technology, is working directly with Genus and DuPont to get edited crops and meat on store shelves faster.

I think this technology can help produce better food that’s safer for people by preventing allergies.

Francisco Barro Losado, researcher

Not everyone is enthusiastic about that prospect. Staunch anti-GMO advocates don’t know what to make of CRISPR-edited food yet, but they’re not so sure they want it on their plates. The technology isn’t waiting, though. Gene editing plants and livestock with CRISPR has picked up speed as the technology has recently become less complicated and more efficient.

“CRISPR-Cas9 [a form of the technology that relies on the Cas9 protein] is much easier to use than historical technologies and is therefore being rapidly adopted,” says Rachel Haurwitz, CEO of Caribou Biosciences.

 

Previous methods of gene editing, most commonly zinc-finger nucleases and TALEN, are similar to CRISPR but are more complex, time-consuming and expensive. Robert Henry, director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation in Australia, says that CRISPR and other agricultural genetics will help humans survive sustainably. “The world population doubled in the second half of the last century, but we more than doubled food production,” says Henry, and humanity did it “substantially by genetics.” As the global population continues to rise, Henry is confident we’ll ramp up food production again, “and we’ll do it by two means: genetics and management.”

DuPont shares Henry’s belief and has set out to develop a disease- and drought-resistant type of waxy corn that is starchier than traditional corn, making it ideal for use in food stabilizers, adhesives and glue, in addition to food products. Pending regulation, DuPont plans to have commercial seeds ready for planting in the U.S. as soon as 2019. In April 2016, the USDA Biotechnology Regulatory Services concluded that DuPont’s CRISPR-edited waxy corn does not fall within its area of authority, which satisfied Roger Theisen, business manager of DuPont’s specialty corn program. “[We] believe that regulatory oversight should focus on the characteristics of the product — not the process by which it is created,” Theisen says.

Genus Breeding in the U.K. is one of very few companies currently testing CRISPR in pig and cow embryos to improve meat production and quality. Haurwitz’s company, Caribou, holds a patent to CRISPR technology that they license to both Genus and DuPont. “What [Genus] wants to do is actually use gene editing in embryos of these animals to make really specific changes to one gene at a time,” says Haurwitz. Scientists from both organizations are working closely to determine the best way to do this and are asking, “How do we analyze the data once,” Haurwitz says. Genus could not be reached for comment on how long it believes it will take to get CRISPR-edited meat on the market, but Haurwitz is hopeful it could be within five years.

Increasing the quantity and quality of our food isn’t the only reason scientists are using CRISPR in agriculture. Last year, researchers in Spain successfully removed 35 of 45 genes in the specific wheat protein that causes an adverse immune reaction in people with celiac. At least 3 million Americans currently suffer from the gluten intolerance, according to the University of Chicago. “I think this technology can help produce better food that’s safer for people by preventing allergies,” Francisco Barro Losado, one of the researchers, tells OZY. A plant scientist at the Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Córdoba, Spain, Losado also believes CRISPR has the potential to increase food supply in drought-stricken nations. “If you think about many countries in Africa where the drought is a very serious problem, this technology can develop resistant crops and [allow] people there to produce their own food,” he says.

Some anti-GMO advocates aren’t so thrilled. “New genetic engineering techniques need a whole different battery of evaluation,” says Lawrence Woodward, director of Beyond GM in London. “We simply do not know enough about the off-target effects.” Genetic modification of crops, his organization argues, is simply unnecessary and at this moment, Woodward sees no difference between CRISPR and other forms of genetic modification in plants and animals. “All of these techniques, conceptually, are genetic engineering,” he says. Convincing organizations like Woodward’s remains a challenge for CRISPR proponents.  

Still, the scientists developing CRISPR for agriculture hope their work will bring better food to more people. “I have a dream that in five to 10 years, a person could go to the grocery store and purchase vegetables or fruit that have been developed using CRISPR technology,” says Haurwitz. DuPont believes CRISPR will ultimately be the agricultural solution the world needs. “Plants are under constant stress from climate change, drought and disease,” Theisen says. “This coupled with rapid population growth and changing diets requires agricultural innovation to keep pace.”  

How a Hasty Cover Song Made a Jazz Giant’s Career

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The Chicago recording studio was a mess. The comically tiny 12-by-15 room wasn’t big enough to accommodate Count Basie’s grand piano, so he played a beat-up baby grand. The acoustics were so poor that one hit from Jo Jones’ thunderous bass drum coupled with vibrations from Walter Page’s upright bass caused the playback needle to slap viciously back and forth. As a result, Jones was forced to use only his snare and cymbals.

The three-hour session on Nov. 9, 1936, for the independent label Vocalion Records was so impromptu that vocalist Jimmy Rushing kept his overcoat on the entire time. And Lester Young, the laid-back kid who added a new musical lexicon for the saxophone with his wide-open, buttery-warm style? He was just happy to be making his recording debut.

 

When famed producer and A&R man John Hammond booked studio time and convinced future jazz giant William James Basie and his four-man unit to cut previously recorded material, the usual sunny optimism of the bandleader from Red Bank, New Jersey, darkened to apprehension. “I didn’t know what the heck we were going to do,” Basie recalled of the landmark date that introduced the hopping, blues-based Kansas City sound to the jazz world. “So we just sat down and came up with four tunes and had a nice ball on the session.”

The remakes included “Shoe Shine Boy,” “Evening” and “Oh, Lady Be Good.” The fourth tune was a cover of the decade-old blues stomp “Boogie Woogie.” Not only did the throwback composition single-handedly reignite a musical genre first made popular in the ’20s, it went on to influence pop (the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”), early jump R&B (Louis Jordan) and rock ’n’ roll (Little Richard, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis).

I want to say categorically … that Count Bill Basie has by far and away the finest dance orchestra in the country.

John Hammond, record producer

Basie was already under contract with Decca, so Hammond had a savvy suggestion: Record as Jones-Smith Incorporated, and beat the label bosses at their own game — in this case, a draconian three-year deal that paid Basie and his band a flat rate of $750 with no royalties.

“The stripped-down nature of Basie’s band was something entirely different” at that Chicago recording, says Chuck Haddix, who co-wrote Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop — A History. “It’s classic Kansas City. It swings hard, and Lester Young plays one of jazz’s landmark solos. Basie and his band basically improvised that entire performance.”

 

Hammond first heard Basie on a live radio broadcast in 1936 during the drummer-turned-piano-man’s legendary residency at Kansas City’s Reno Club. The performance floored the white jazz enthusiast and rising industry player who had lifted Billie Holiday from obscurity and helped Benny Goodman start his band.

“I want to say categorically and without fear of ridicule that Count Bill Basie has by far and away the finest dance orchestra in the country,” Hammond wrote in his column in DownBeat magazine. When Hammond drove out from Chicago to meet the amiable Basie, it was the beginning of one of jazz’s most indelible unions.

Starting out, Basie had scuffled as a vaudeville accompanist and also backed blues vocalists Clara Smith and Maggie Jones. In the late ’20s, the East Coast musician found himself stranded in Kansas City following a gig with the Gonzelle White show. Basie eventually found work with Walter Page’s Blue Devils band. When that group broke up in 1929, Basie played with Bennie Moten’s orchestra until the bandleader’s untimely death in 1935.

Two years later, now a bandleader himself, Basie had his commercial breakthrough with “One O’Clock Jump,” a rollicking 12-bar blues instrumental that became the theme song for the Count Basie Orchestra. It was during the swing era that the orchestra found its biggest, most consistent national acclaim, regularly facing off against bands led by Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Chick Webb and Glenn Miller. 

But jazz was drastically changing. Vocalists were becoming the marquee musicians, and the youthful bebop insurgence led by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk was driving the final stake into the heart of the big band scene. Count Basie had dismantled his orchestra by 1950. However, when nostalgia set in later that decade, big bands came roaring back, led by a reinvigorated Basie. Nearly three decades into his career, he enjoyed his biggest hit with a 1957 cover of “April in Paris.”

Suddenly, Count Basie was an institution, so universally revered that his band was chosen to play at one of President John F. Kennedy’s five inaugural balls in 1961 and yet still cool enough to appear in his trademark yachting cap in Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles.

The true testament to the greatness of Count Basie? Even after the Kennedy Center honoree’s death in 1984, the Basie band continues to tour, carrying on the legacy of one of jazz’s most celebrated characters. As Basie once famously said, “One more time.…” 

William James Basie

  • Nicknames: Count (courtesy of an announcer on a live radio broadcast from the Reno Club in Kansas City who wanted to lend some style to the bandleader’s name), Holy Man (courtesy of band member Lester Young)
  • Vitals: b. Aug. 21, 1904, Red Bank, New Jersey – d. April 26, 1984, Hollywood, Florida
  • Instrument: Piano
  • Standards: “Boogie Woogie” (1936), “One O’Clock Jump” (1937), “April in Paris” (1957)
  • Quirks: As a teen played accompaniment music to silent films; began his jazz career as a drummer but switched to piano after watching percussionist Sonny Greer perform; known for his trademark yachting cap.
  • Another take: Count Basie — Swingin’ the Blues, directed by Matthew Seig (1991)

The Syrian Filmmaker Documenting Jihadi Family Values

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“I learned to speak directly to the eyes,” says Talal Derki. He’s sitting on a couch in a rented condo in Park City, Utah, at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. With tattooed arms, a well-trimmed goatee and penetrating green eyes, the 40-year-old Syrian filmmaker projects an intensity and sincerity that must’ve helped convince a jihadi family to welcome him into their home for two years.

Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2010, many of the country’s leading filmmakers have turned their cameras to a simple goal: documenting the yearslong conflict. Their efforts have earned them critical praise and awards. This year, Derki won Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize for Of Fathers and Sons, five years after his film Return to Homs took the same honorAnother Syrian, Firas Fayyad, was a 2017 Grand Jury Prize winner for his documentary Last Men in Aleppo. The question facing these filmmakers today: What now?

To gain access to Idlib province, Derki learned to mimic the vocabulary used by new recruits to the jihadi movement.

“Before the war, everything was taboo,” Derki begins, explaining how telling complex stories was hard in Syria. So was securing financing and worldwide distribution. Now, though small in number, Syrian filmmakers remind him of postwar Italian ones, when famed directors like Vittorio De Sica and Federico Fellini emerged from the shadow of Mussolini and World War II. “All the difficulties built stronger character,” he says. It made them better filmmakers, as it could for expatriated Syrians.

Posing as a jihad-supporting war photographer, Derki filmed Of Fathers and Sons in Idlib province in Syria — at the time almost completely outside government control. The documentary has scenes, both mundane and surreal, of Abu Osama, a member of the al-Qaida–affiliated Nusra Front, and two of his eight sons (his wife and daughters are never seen). Osama looks for mines in one frame and plays lovingly with his 12- and 13-year-old sons in the next. Typical troublemakers at the start of the film — they taunt passing schoolgirls — the boys are forced to contemplate in very real terms the life their father has chosen as a soldier of God. By the end of the 98-minute film, two years have passed, and the older son has been sent to a military training camp, where he dons a balaclava and fatigues, one step closer to joining his father’s holy war.

 

Derki, who lives in Berlin, was born in Damascus to a Kurdish family already familiar with exile. His grandfather came to Syria from Turkey after the first Kurdish uprising in the 1920s. Derki is the only one of three brothers to become an artist. Since he was a child, he explains, film was essential to his experience of the outside world. He would burn through VHS tapes of American Westerns and ’80s action films like Mad Max.

After studying fine arts in Damascus, Derki moved to Greece for film school. He made a couple of short films and says he probably would never have progressed to feature-length documentaries had the war not started (his passion then, and now, is fiction). But start it did, and he found himself with a camera at the center of a nonfiction story as gripping as the movies he grew up watching. In fact, while filming Return to Homs, he was repeatedly reminded of the apocalyptic Mad Max landscape that his home now resembled.

To gain access to Idlib province, Derki learned to mimic the vocabulary used by new recruits to the jihadi movement — describing how he’d seen “the light of jihad.” And though it felt like a nightmare to live among men espousing radicalism and violence, he was driven by a responsibility to document the conflict. Filmmaking, he insists, is “not about inspiration.… It’s about urgency.” 

That urgency has given rise to a new wave of directors bearing witness to the horrors unfolding at home. “I don’t think we can really talk about a generation of documentary filmmakers before the uprising,” says Mohammad Atassi, founder of Bidayyat, a Beirut-based organization that trains and supports Syrian filmmakers. Many young artists have turned to documentaries, explains Atassi, because “the reality sometimes is much stronger than any fiction.” Ali Sheikh Khudr, director of The Cow Farm, a 2016 documentary about a Syrian farmer, has worked with Derki and is also based in Berlin. Films coming out of his country, Khudr says, may have a quality of “improvisation,” but these “films of the moment” have a shared objective: to document everything that’s taking place on the ground.

But this new generation of filmmakers, like their country, is splintered, lacking a unified message. It’s too early to talk about commonality, says Attasi, except, of course, the collective experience of war. “It will take time for people to understand what happened, and they will really start to think about the whole experience in a different way,” adds Khudr. For now, Syrian filmmakers and artists will keep creating what they can with what they have. Khudr, like Derki, wants to make narrative films but feels obligated to contribute to the historical record — “to keep the camera rolling,” he says.

When I ask Derki what’s ahead for him, he describes a project that’s taking shape. It’s about Raqqa, the Islamic State’s former capital, in 2015. And the city’s underground, where artists gathered but couldn’t escape. “What happened to them?” he wonders aloud. How did they survive? He seems to be picturing someone not unlike himself. What would he have done if he’d been trapped in Raqqa?

In effect, he is. So he’ll keep the camera rolling.

A Day in the Life of a Criminal Defense Attorney

Davis 5

Early in my legal career I worked for a public defender’s office in the San Francisco Bay Area. The chance to represent the oppressed, downtrodden accused against the tyranny of the police state was attractive for a young, aspiring attorney. I certainly had the fire in my gut to take on the challenge even if I also realized that, given my lack of experience, I was unlikely to do much more than review documents and move paper.

As it turns out, that initial assessment was wholly inaccurate. Less than a month into my job, my supervising attorney called me in to let me know she would be heading to Europe for a month, and I was to “manage” all of her pending cases until her return. Not to worry, though; she had filed all of the necessary paperwork to ensure that I really wouldn’t have to do anything meaningful during her absence. Thus began my foray into the true essence of criminal law.

Prior to that day, and since, I’ve never seen a more intimidating, threatening individual. He was about 6′3″ and easily 240 pounds. All of it sinewy muscle. 

On my first assignment I was called out to the recently renovated jail in San Bruno. My client had been charged with some minor drug possession. It was a seeming no-brainer for someone with my vast days of legal practice. As I approached the jail, I could feel slight pangs of nervousness. The facility had an ominous heaviness that was palpable. But I’d just bought an actual business suit and a very studious pair of reading glasses that conveyed both my intellect and my fortitude. I was certain I could handle whatever the day brought.

I went through registration and into a waiting area where I sat with other visitors. Every jail or prison I’ve ever been in has that same smell: a stark antiseptic stink of sad and strict confinement. Eventually, one of the guards came out and told me that the interview rooms were packed, so my interview would be conducted in the newly constructed yet unopened women’s jail next door.

 

We walked across the parking lot, through some new gates, and into the new facility. The only smell now was new construction.

I was led down a long, isolated hallway to a group of unoccupied meeting rooms and told to take a seat. I did and waited by myself for about 15 minutes. Other than the guard who walked me in, I hadn’t seen a soul since I left the men’s jail.

Eventually, the guard returned with the accused. Prior to that day, and since, I’ve never seen a more intimidating, threatening individual. He was about 6′3″ and easily 240 pounds. All of it sinewy muscle. Both of his wrists were shackled to his waist. He was Hispanic, with a short haircut, but a long mustache covering a pockmarked face. Virtually every inch of his exposed skin was covered in tattoos, and I immediately noticed more than a few horrible looking scars, including one across his neck.

As I stood up to greet him, I was let down that he didn’t appear to be overjoyed to see that his legal hero had arrived. And when I offered my hand, he didn’t extend his. He looked at me, though. With contempt. Regardless, when the guard suggested he should remain shackled, I brushed the suggestion away: How could I have a meaningful conversation with this gentleman while he was shackled like an animal?  

The guard remained unmoved and noted two significant considerations at play: First, this shackled gent was a known member of a notorious Hispanic gang and suspected of participating in at least two killings. Moreover, he’d already had a bit of a dustup during this particular stay in County during the intake process.

The panic buttons in the interview rooms weren’t working.

Second, they hadn’t finished the wiring and electronics in the new, unopened women’s jail, so the panic buttons in the interview rooms weren’t working. So, essentially, I’d be on my own, locked in an interview cell in an unoccupied jail facility with a suspected killer, until the end of the half-hour interview session. I was undeterred and insisted that the chains be removed and we be left alone to our important private matters. 

The guard proceeded to roll his eyes, give a condescending chuckle, remove the shackles and walk off with a rather ominous “See you on the other side, ace.” As soon as he left, I welcomed the chance to bond with my new buddy. 

“Ha! That guy’s a real asshole! I’m glad he’s gone.” 

He replied, to my surprise, “Now I just have one asshole to worry about.”  No hint of a smile.

Undeterred, I moved forward with the interview and asked him questions from the idiot’s guide on how to interview the accused, falling back into my Perry Mason comfort zone. When the charges came up, though, we hit a stumbling block. See, these particular charges revolved around the possession of meth for sale. My inquiries to him related to the amount, the location and the nature of the offending substance. 

These questions seemed to be driving my interviewee into a deeper rage with every passing question. Eventually, he slammed his huge, scarred hand on the table and said the interview was over. I was appalled and let him know that I couldn’t help him if he wouldn’t talk with me.

His counter was that I was likely the least competent person in the entire facility, including “the bitches that made my lunch.” He went on to enlighten me that every other person even marginally involved in criminal law or activity was aware that white biker gangs moved meth and Hispanic gangs were known for other drugs, like heroin.

I was bleeding from multiple parts of my face.

He continued that no well-respected Hispanic gang member would ever be involved with meth, and certainly not a member of his status. Given that I hadn’t even been aware of this reality, he actually accused me of working for the police.

That was it. I was already well into my law school career, and I wasn’t about to let someone speak to me this way! 

I stood up and headed for the door. I’ll never forget the dumbfounded look in his eyes as I wriggled and wrestled with the latch: Could I really be so stupid as to forget that we were locked in the cell, together, for the rest of that half hour?  

I casually pressed the “panic button” on the wall, trying to maintain the illusion that I was just curious to see if the guard was lying when he said they didn’t work. But no alarm sounded. Nothing happened. I was trying to regain my composure when he said, “Sit down, bitch, I’m not done with you.”   

Obviously he didn’t fully appreciate my stature as an aspiring attorney. I turned and told him in my toughest voice to cut the shit and pull it together. I was the only friend his sorry ass had.

I never actually felt the punch. 

I just remember feeling my glasses digging into the side of my face as his knee squished my head between the cell floor and cell wall. I could feel him punching my body, but I didn’t actually know where he was and what exactly was hurting on my body. Eventually, some old wrestling instincts kicked in, and I managed to wrap up the leg that was kneeling on my face and get him off me. 

I vaguely remember us both wrapped up, semi-sprawling. He was sliding around on some half-assed prison sandals, and I was sliding around on my brand new wingtips. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get away from his punches. Then I realized he had a wrapped grip around my tie and was using it on me as some jailhouse guillotine. As he was strangling me and pummeling me, I happened to notice his funny slippers again. In a last ditch effort, I started stomping on his feet with my new wingtips, eventually escalating into a rapid-fire heel-stomping effort.

And then the door opened. 

The guard just looked in on us casually. We both let go of each other. My suit jacket was ripped apart. I was bleeding from multiple parts of my face. My tie was almost completely out of my shirt and wrapped tightly around my neck, and my glasses were broken cleanly in half and lying on the floor. 

The guard asked me if I needed more time for the interview.  I attempted to regain some semblance of composure and let him know I thought I had all that I needed. He gave me a nod and asked me to follow him out, locking my interviewee in as we left.

Destroying the tattered remains of what dignity I had left, the guard stuck out his hand: “On behalf of all law-enforcement officers everywhere, I am grateful that there are attorneys out there, like you, protecting the rights of the accused!”