I watched a special on magician-extraordinaire Ricky Jay, and it got me thinking. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older, but it seems me that there are very few absolute masters of a given form left on earth. Here’s a tribute to some:
TONY BENNETT – the master of the American Songbook. Age does not dim his majestic phrasing. In his own words: “I don’t follow the latest fashions. I never sing a song that’s badly written. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was a renaissance in music that was the equivalent of the artistic Renaissance. Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and others just created the best songs that had ever been written. These are classics, and finally they’re not being treated as light entertainment. This is classical music.”
LAWRENCE BLOCK – the master of the hard-boiled crime novel. The diamond-sharp Matthew Scudder novels are the living equivalent of Ross MacDonald and Richard Prather and John D. MacDonald. They move with brutal intensity down the mean streets of crime fiction.
JACKIE CHAN – the master of action/comedy. Trained in the Peking Opera, he began as a stunt man in Hong Kong movies and developed into the finest practitioner of physical comedy since Buster Keaton. Just watch PROJECT A, POLICE STORY or DRUNKEN MASTER II and be amazed. The years and the incredible risks he takes (just watch the out-takes at the end of any of his movies) have taken their toll on him, but he still possesses the infinite grace of a dancer and gifted clown.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN – a master historian. Author of TEAM OF RIVAL and NO ORDINARY TIME, she inherits the mantle of Barbara Tuchman and Stephen Ambrose. RIVALS brought me to tears in its final chapter. Accusations of plagiarism aside, she has knack of bringing history to life like no one else.
EMMYLOU HARRIS – a master of country music. Winner of 13 Grammys, Harris sings with the purity of a seraph. As a matter of fact, when I die and go heaven, if the angels don’t sound like Emmylou, I’ll ask for a refund. I’d list my favorite albums of hers, but that would just be a list of all her albums. She carries the torch of Patsy Cline and Gram Parsons. She is a national treasure.
RICKY JAY – a master magician. The undisputed master of sleight of hand magic. His books (LEARNED PIGS AND FIREPROOF WOMEN and CELEBRATIONS OF CURIOUS CHARACTERS) and his Broadway shows (RICKY JAY AND HIS 52 ASSISTANTS and ON THE STEM) are evidence of an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the history of prestidigitation and stage magic. He inherits of the mantle of Cardini and Slydini. He is the Sensei of the new generation of magicians.
PADDY MALONEY – master of Irish folk music. The founder and leader of The Chieftains, he is to Irish music what Bill Monroe was to Bluegrass. The King, the God, and Creator. He makes a tin whistle sound like the most gorgeous orchestra imaginable. Also a virtuoso of Uilleann pipes. The Chieftains have played with the Rolling Stones and provided the magical score to Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON. Every Irish tune you ever hear owes a tribute to him. A composer and performer for 40 years.
More to come. Who can you think of?